Rio Tinto is to become the owner of the world’s largest fleet of driverless trucks after it signed a deal to buy at least 150 from Komatsu Ltd. over the next four years. The new trucks, which will start arriving in 2012, will be used in Rio Tinto’s Pilbara iron ore mines in Western Australia and can be controlled from its Operations Centre in Perth more than 1,500 km away. The move signals a 15-fold expansion from its previous plan to double the fleet to 10 trucks. This is the latest development in Rio Tinto’s Mine of the Future program, which introduces next-generation technologies for mining operations with the aim of reducing costs, increasing efficiency and improving health, safety and environmental performance.

Implementing autonomous haulage on this scale means more material can be moved more quickly and safely, creating a direct increase in productivity.

In Tokyo, Rio Tinto Chief Executive Tom Albanese and Komatsu President and CEO Kunio Noji, signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the supply and purchase of the trucks. Also present at the signing ceremony were Rio Tinto Iron Ore President Pilbara Operations Greg Lilleyman and senior executives from both companies.

“This announcement further reinforces our longstanding alliance with Komatsu,” Albanese said. “We have been partnering with Komatsu, using their advanced truck technology at our mines, for almost 20 years. Autonomous haulage is an important component in our Mine of the Future program. These 150 new trucks will work with our pioneering Operations Centre that integrates and manages the logistics of 14 mines, three ports and two railways. These technologies are revolutionizing the way large-scale mining is done, creating attractive hi-tech jobs, and helping us improve safety and environmental performance, and reduce carbon emissions.”

“Komatsu and Rio Tinto have developed a strong alliance throughout the years,” Noji said. “We are confident that our leading-edge AHS Technology will accelerate Rio Tinto’s Mine of the Future objectives through improving safety and mine operations.”

Rio Tinto has been testing the Komatsu Autonomous Haulage System, the world’s first commercial autonomous mining haulage system, in the Pilbara since December 2008. During the trials, the AHS technology demonstrated benefits in health, safety and productivity. Elsewhere in its Mine of the Future program, Rio Tinto will begin more widespread deployment of its automated drills, both in the Pilbara and at coal and copper mines.