Mining giant BHP Billiton (ASX: BHP) announced on Thursday that it will pilot test the use of robot trucks at its Jimblebar iron ore mine in Pilbara. The company will use by late 2013 between 12 and 15 automated Caterpillar trucks, BHP head of Iron Ore and Coal Marcus Randolph disclosed.
By trying the robot trucks, BHP would follow rival Rio Tinto (ASX: RIO) which had pioneered in the area of automated trucks. Rio has 10 driverless trucks running at its Junction South East mine in Pilbara. Rio said it plans to expand its Komatsu trucks fleet to 150 over the next four years as well as put in place driverless trains.
Despite the high cost of such equipment, the expenses are worth it because of the robot truck's lower rate of error, improved productivity and lesser manpower cost. Mr Randolph estimated that about 10 employees are needed by miners for every manual truck they operate, but the number could be halved by tapping technology.
He said the cost-cutting measures could help miners' finances at a time that diesel prices are going up and the industry has to input in their costs the carbon and mining taxes.
Robot trucks are now used in mines on soft grounds that do not require blasting. Mr Randolph said the automated trucks could also be adapted in mines that need blasting.
However, Mr Randolph said BHP is going one step ahead of Rio by buying trucks with crushing and processing capability which could operate near the mineral source, rather than raw minerals being transported by the robot trucks to a processing site.
"The technology has shifted . . . We have got to a point where we have sizers and crushers of substantial size that you can move in a day or two. We are getting to the point where you can bring your crushers much closer to the face and it is practical to run mines without the truck, where the loading gear loads straight into your bulk mining system," The Sydney Morning Herald quoted Mr Randolph.
However, he said both autonomous trucks and truckless mines would have a future in the company's operations.
BHP has set up a remote operating centre at its Perth head office, manned by 340 people. To design and established this centre, reports said BHP pirated some of Rio's general managers who are familiar with the technology.
Mr Randolph also disclosed plans to use the robot trucks in the future for its coal mines in Queensland and copper mine in Escondido, Chile.