Urban Transport

Autonomous train completes first journey across Australian Outback

Autonomous train completes fir...
Rio Tinto has been working on autonomous train technology since 2012
Rio Tinto has been working on autonomous train technology since 2012
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Rio Tinto has been working on autonomous train technology since 2012
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Rio Tinto has been working on autonomous train technology since 2012
Rio Tinto hopes autonomous trains will allow it to expand its iron ore operations
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Rio Tinto hopes autonomous trains will allow it to expand its iron ore operations

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

Australia’s first fully autonomous train run

4 comments
Joe Boatman
I don't understand the need for autonomy to drive a train or why it took so long to get the bugs sorted. There's already lots of autonomous trains eg Docklands Light Railway in London where drivers are now conductors, on hand to assist passengers, close the doors and take over the driving if required. I can't help wondering about the Rio Tonto drivers in Australia and whether the amount spent on software and hardware development would be better shared amongst them. Does nobody want to drive the trains? Do the current drivers get bored and disrupt the service? What is their take on this autonomy? Rio Tinto are pioneering self driving autonomous trucks that move ore around quarries because it safer and can be managed from one grand central location which will presumably soon include the railway too. Perhaps they'll extend their control to autonomous ships. I can just imagine being a salivating megalomaniac grinning at the power of controlling that lot!
Madlyb
What I was not able to suss out from the article or the linked release is whether these racks are dedicated to Rio Tinto's autonomous trains or shared with other rail traffic that may not be autonomous. If it is the latter, this is a significant accomplishment as ATO on dedicated rail has been around for decades.
Nik
What is there to driving a train? It either goes or stops. No steering needed. If anything got in the way of one of these trains, it has virtually zero chance of stopping in time, with or without a driver. These have a departure, and a destination, no intermediate stops for passengers. It should be pretty simple.
Grunchy
I know Vancouver has a fully autonomous light rail transit system, known as Sky Train, it seems to me they’ve been operational for a few decades already ? I mean, congratulations, sure. I don’t know why all trains aren’t autonomous yet.