On December 18, Rio Tinto announced it would be expanding its fleet of autonomous haul trucks at its iron ore operations in the Pilbara by more than 50% by 2019 after signing agreements with Caterpillar Inc. and Komatsu Ltd. to convert traditional trucks to autonomous vehicles.

A total of 29 Komatsu haul trucks will be retrofitted with Autonomous Haulage System (AHS) technology starting next year. The project at the Brockman 4 operation is scheduled for completion by mid-2019, allowing the mine to run entirely in AHS mode once fully deployed.

At the Marandoo mine, 19 Caterpillar haul trucks will also be retrofitted starting mid-2018 for completion by the end of 2019. The retrofit is significant for Rio Tinto as it marks the first time AHS technology has been deployed on Caterpillar haul trucks, the company said.

Once completed, the retrofit projects will make a significant contribution toward Rio Tinto’s $5 billion productivity program.

Rio Tinto Iron Ore Chief Executive Chris Salisbury said “We are excited to be starting a new chapter in our automation journey with a valued long-term partner in Caterpillar and we are proud to be extending our successful partnership with Komatsu on this world-first retrofitting initiative.

“Rapid advances in technology are continuing to revolutionize the way large-scale mining is undertaken across the globe. The expansion of our autonomous fleet via retrofitting helps to improve safety, unlocks significant productivity gains, and continues to cement Rio Tinto as an industry leader in automation and innovation.”

The retrofit program will assist the iron ore business in delivering an additional $500 million of free cash flow annually from 2021, Rio Tinto said.

Last year, on average, each of Rio Tinto’s autonomous haul trucks operated an additional 1,000 hours and at 15% lower load and haul unit cost than conventional haul trucks. About 20% of the existing fleet of almost 400 haul trucks in the Pilbara is AHS-enabled. Following the completion of the projects with Komatsu and Caterpillar, Rio Tinto will have more than 130 autonomous trucks, representing about 30% of the fleet.

Rio Tinto started deploying autonomous technology in 2008. The iron ore business also operates six fully Autonomous Drill Systems (ADS) to drill production blast holes. Rio Tinto ran its first fully autonomous heavy haul train in September, completing a 100-kilometer pilot run without a driver on board. AutoHaul is on track for completion by the end of 2018, making it the world’s first fully-autonomous heavy haul, long distance rail network.