Just like freight trucking, mining operations where trains haul heavy loads along the same route seem a high-potential application for autonomous vehicle technologies. Mining giant Rio Tinto has been busy exploring these possibilities in the Australian Outback and has now completed the nation's first autonomous heavy haul rail journey as it looks for more efficient ways to move iron ore around the country.

Rio Tinto's AutoHaul project has been underway since 2012 and is hoped to help the company expand its operations by allowing the trains hauling iron ore to largely control themselves. The company also has 69 autonomous haulage trucks in operation at its mine sites in the Pilbara, a remote region of north-western Australia.

While its autonomous train project has been underway for five years, it has been beset by software glitches that have continuously pushed back a full roll-out of the system. The company now says it has taken a significant step forwards, completing its first long-haul journey without a driver onboard.

The trip covered a 100-km (62-mi) stretch of desert between Wombat Junction and the town of Paraburdoo. It was monitored by workers from Rio Tinto and the local rail safety regulator, both on the ground and at an operations center in Perth.

"This successful pilot run puts us firmly on track to meet our goal of operating the world's first fully-autonomous heavy haul, long distance rail network, which will unlock significant safety and productivity benefits for the business," says Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Chris Salisbury.

The company says it is retraining drivers who may lose work due to the AutoHaul project to fill newly created roles and it hopes to fully implement the AutoHaul system in 2018.

You can see the autonomous train in action in the video below.

Source: Rio Tinto

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