Rio Tinto announced plans to almost double the size of its autonomous production drill rig fleet at its iron ore operations in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The company cited the “significant safety advantage” and the “increased productivity” the rigs provide as the main reason for the development.

Before year-end, the mining giant will deploy nine rigs retrofitted with Autonomous Drilling System (ADS) technology to the Yandicoogina and West Angeles mines, the company reported. Currently, the mines operate a total of 11 such rigs.

The rigs are remotely monitored at the company’s operations center in Perth, more than 1,500 kilometers (km) away. There, an operator using a single console can manage multiple rigs supplied by different manufacturers, Rio Tinto reported.

The company reported it has benefitted materially from those rigs, which have operated without any reported worker injuries.

“The expansion of our autonomous drilling fleet delivers significant productivity gains and enables us to drill more safely, accurately and consistently,” said Kellie Parker, managing director of planning integration and assets, iron ore, Rio Tinto. “The deployment of additional rigs offers significant advantages as part of our integrated system, which optimizes our autonomous trains, trucks and drills and provides increased operability and flexibility.”

The move was strategic and helps ensure the company remains a leader in the sector, Parker said. Employees impacted by the development will be eligible for “opportunities for new roles, new skills, redeployment and retraining,” Parker said.

ADS-leveraging drills were first tested by the company at the West Angeles mine, starting in 2008. The mine currently operates seven such rigs. The 11 rigs currently in operation in the region have drilled a combined total of than 5,000 km, the company reported.