Rio Tinto focusses mining automation effort in Australia

Rio Tinto is to expand its technical innovation activities, committing A$21 million over five years to a new Research & Development (R&D) centre for mining automation at The University of Sydney. The group is also basing both its newly appointed Group Scientist and Global Head of Innovation in Australia. The new roles will report to Brisbane-based Grant Thorne who is Rio Tinto’s Group executive for Technology and Innovation.

These initiatives complement Hydrogen Energy, a joint endeavour between Rio Tinto and BP, which is investigating a clean coal/hydrogen power project in Kwinana, Western Australia.  Rio Tinto’s technology groups are located in Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, Bristol (UK) and Salt Lake City (US) to support global mining and processing activities.

In announcing the increased funding for technical innovation, Rio Tinto’s chief executive, Tom Albanese, said “Australia is a natural base from which to support our operations with the innovative technical solutions they will need in the future. A common feature of Rio Tinto’s technical and innovation activities is their strong linkages with Australian academic and research institutions. This focus is a vote of confidence in Australia’s innovation capability.”

The new R&D centre will be led by professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte and be based at The University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR). Grant Thorne said, “The Centre for Mine Automation aims to provide a substantial improvement in safety, predictability, precision and efficiency of mining through the development of automation and remotely operated mining processes.”

The centre will support up to 30 full time staff and ten research students with funding of A$5 million a year when fully staffed. The initial agreement for five years has the potential for extension by agreement between The University of Sydney and Rio Tinto following mutually satisfactory technology and innovation outcomes. A technical management group with representatives from Rio Tinto and the ACFR will monitor the centre’s performance and guide its direction.

Thorne said that these latest initiatives reflected Rio Tinto’s long term commitment to the pursuit of worldclass technology in Australia. “Our Iron Ore group, headquartered in Perth, will be the first trial for automation of a range of equipment and the remote operation control of mines, processing plants and trains. Rio Tinto has always emphasized technical development. Now we are intensifying our commitment to ensure we are equipped to deal effectively with the challenges likely to face us in the next generation of mines. Australia will play a central role.”

The Australian Centre for Field Robotics at The University of Sydney is one of the largest and most successful robotics research groups in the world. It is the lead partner in the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Autonomous Systems, hosts the Defence Science and Technology Organisation Centre of Expertise for Uninhabited and Autonomous Systems, and is a partner in the Cooperative Research Centre for Mining. Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow.