Rio Tinto reported in mid-June it is accelerating its iron ore expansion program in the Pilbara region of Western Australia with $676 million of funding for early works and procurement. As a result, capacity expansion to 333 million mt/y at the company’s Pilbara operations will be reached in the first half of 2015, six months earlier than previously planned. The investment (Rio Tinto’s share is $350 million) will be used to bring forward engineering work for the longest-lead-time components of port and rail infrastructure, without increasing the overall cost of the expansion program. The work is part of a five-year program started in 2010 to increase the company’s capacity in the Pilbara by 50%.

The early port works principally comprise the assembly of additional construction accommodation; continuation of dredging, marine works, and stockyard earth works; and procurement of key equipment. The rail-related funding will enable early engineering and accelerated procurement of long-lead items. Studies will continue through 2011 to determine the best mine development path, as will studies for supporting infrastructure such as utilities, fuel, and accommodation.

Sam Walsh, Rio Tinto chief executive for Iron Ore and Australia, said, “The demand outlook continues to be strong, with supply lagging elsewhere in the industry; and we are seeing new supplies proving slower to materialize than predicted. We are taking the opportunity to bring forward the next phase of our major capacity expansion to reap the benefits early and at no additional cost.”

Rio Tinto also announced it is doubling its fleet of driverless haul trucks at its iron ore operations in Western Australia from five to 10 and will deploy them at Yandicoogina, the largest mine in the Pilbara. The move follows a two-year trial of Autonomous Haulage System (AHS) technology on trucks at the West Angelas mine, where performance was above expectations. At Yandicoogina, the trucks will dump ore for the first time, marking a major step in the evolution of the project toward full operational deployment. At West Angelas, the trucks only dumped waste material.

Five Komatsu 930E trucks fitted with Komatsu’s “Frontrunner” AHS system have been operating around the clock at West Angelas for more than two years, moving more than 42 million mt of material in approximately 145,000 cycles, traveling more than 450,000 km. “In that time, performing a number of tasks, the AHS technology has demonstrated clear value to the business, especially in the areas of health, safety, and productivity,” the Rio Tinto statement said. “The AHS trucks use pre-defined courses and navigate autonomously from loading units to dump locations, including waste dumps, stockpiles and crushers. The main navigation system is GPS, combined with a secondary navigation process.”

The five Komatsu 930E trucks from West Angeles will be moved to Yandicoogina and combined with five new 930E trucks. The 10 autonomous trucks are expected to be fully deployed by April 2012.

The driverless truck fleet is being developed as a key part of the Rio Tinto’s “Mine of the Future” program, launched in 2008.

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