Rio Tinto to pilot Volvo Group sustainable autonomous haulage solutions

Rio Tinto and Volvo Group have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to create a strategic partnership where Rio will supply responsibly sourced low-carbon products and solutions to Volvo Group, however, it also states that the companies will work towards decarbonising Rio Tinto’s operations through piloting Volvo Group’s sustainable autonomous hauling solutions.

Volvo’s autonomous hauling technology now comes under the Volvo Autonomous Solutions business area within Volvo Group which was formed in 2020 and exists to develop and commercialise industrial autonomous transport solutions “that significantly improve productivity, reduce emissions to almost zero and radically improve safety.”

While the type of autonomous hauling solution to be trialled was not specified, Volvo Autonomous Solutions and Rio Tinto confirmed to IM that it will be in an active mining operation rather than an on-road application; adding: “What we can say at the moment is that the solution being developed will be implemented in Rio Tinto’s operations and we are currently working together to determine what  type of trucking solution will be most suitable based on Rio Tinto’s  needs.”

There are several options for what such a project could include. Looking at what Volvo Autonomous Solutions already has in its portfolio, first off, it includes the TARA system, comprising a cabless, battery electric and autonomous dumper – the current incarnation of which is the 15 t TA15 – and all the needed infrastructure to make the operations run safe and smoothly including charging stations, a control tower, connected cloud solutions designed to meet customer operation requirements, maintenance and repair support, and the practical operations set-up. The TA15 has already seen use by Harsco Environmental in Hofors, Sweden with four autonomous dumpers transporting slag from the site to a landfill; and by Holcim at Gabenchopf quarry in Siggenthal, Switzerland.

On scaling up the TA15, Volvo Autonomous Solutions President Nils Jaeger has previously told IM that its discussions with mining groups “do involve consideration of other size classes and leveraging the platform further in that direction” but emphasised the haulers can also be part of what it calls a “swarm concept,” which means the mine can use many small machines in a very carefully coordinated way on the site rather than a small fleet of very large machines.

Rio Tinto for its part has already stated that it is challenging its thinking on mining truck size and why size matters. “Larger haul trucks, while already automated, consume more energy than current electric-vehicle power sources can generate. By exploring truck size, we want to assess how big and small trucks can both be a part of the solution to reduce our emissions in the Pilbara and find fit-for-purpose solutions in mining.” Work already includes an ongoing project with Scania XT 8×4 40 t tipper type trucks at the Channar iron ore operation.

Other reasons for looking at these types of smaller tipper trucks in the Pilbara instead of large rigids are thought to include more efficient transport of ore from more remote iron ore pits to crushing infrastructure at railheads; as well as the fact that smaller automated trucks could more readily be electrified to reduce carbon emissions, and could therefore improve zero emissions speed to market.

Volvo Group experience with tipper type trucks in mining includes at Brønnøy Kalk AS in Velfjord, Norway where since 2019, six autonomous Volvo FH trucks have been transporting limestone from an open pit mine about 5 km to a primary crusher. There the customer buys a hub to hub transport service and pays per tonne of material delivered.

On the responsible sourcing side, the multi-materials partnership will allow Rio Tinto to progress sustainability commitments in its operations and supply chains. It will support Volvo Group in its ambition towards a net-zero future. The partnership aims to secure supplies of materials including lithium, low-carbon aluminium, copper, and metallics. Rio Tinto Chief Executive Jakob Stausholm said: “We look forward to partnering with Volvo to progress our contribution to a net-zero future, as we collaborate to deliver sustainable outcomes from the mine to the showroom floor. We will be working together to support the decarbonisation of Rio Tinto’s operations and deliver low-carbon materials for use in Volvo’s innovative product range, including electric and autonomous vehicles.”