Robot trains are slashing mining costs in Australia's outback

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(Bloomberg) -- Snaking through Western Australia’s Outback, a driverless train has made the first autonomous delivery of iron ore from a Rio Tinto Group pit to a coastal port, as the No. 2 miner looks to reap the benefits from a $940 million plan deploying the world’s biggest robots.

The maiden 280-kilometer (174 mile) journey was completed Tuesday carrying a cargo of 28,000 metric tons and by the end of the year almost all of Rio’s 200 locomotives used to transport the steel-making ingredient through the Pilbara region will travel without a driver.

It’s an extension of a step change that’s already using driverless trucks and autonomous drills on remote mine sites and moved scores of jobs to operating centers in city-based office blocks. For Rio and its rivals, productivity improvements gained from new technology are helping to sustain efforts to trim costs and protect margins as iron ore prices wane.

“Every train driver drives a bit differently, it’s very complex and they all have different levels of performance,” Ivan Vella, managing director for rail, port and core services at Rio’s iron ore unit, said in a phone interview. Rio’s technology “drives every train autonomously as well as -- or better than -- our very best driver,” he said.

For London-based Rio, the first top miner to install an autonomous rail system, the trains are proving faster, more efficient and save one hour in each 20-hour trip that’d usually be needed to change drivers at the end of their shift. The system is also allowing operators to schedule more services across the company’s 1,700-kilometer network.

“That’s what’s unique, we have a level of flexibility that’s one of a kind in our business,” Vella said. “If we see a bit of a peak in pricing, we can certainly push our business harder to move more product.”

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