Global miner Rio Tinto has become the first mining company to explore the use of a long-distance heavy-haul rail network after announcing it will invest $518m to test the technology at its Pilbara iron ore rail network in Australia.
Rio Tinto chief executive Australia and Iron Ore Sam Walsh said: "Rio Tinto is leading the way in large-scale use of automation, with plans to deploy 150 driverless trucks and our plans for AutoHaulTM."
He continued: "Expanding Pilbara iron ore production is a high-return and low-risk investment for Rio Tinto that will enhance shareholder value."
Rio Tinto intends to launch the first driverless train in 2014 and the AutoHaul automated train programme will be complete by 2015.
The AutoHaul automated train programme is part of the miner's Mine of the Future proposal which also includes driverless trucks and autonomous drills.
Walsh explained: "Automation also helps us address the significant skills shortage facing the industry, providing a valuable opportunity to improve productivity."
Rio Tinto runs 41 trains between mines and ports on its 1,500km rail network which includes 148 locomotives and 9,400 iron ore cars.
Automating train operations will help Rio Tinto expand Pilbara's production capacity without additional investment in increasing its train fleet.
The programme will offer improvements in productivity with flexibility in train scheduling and the removal of driver changeover times.
It will also allow efficient fuel use, thereby lowering energy costs and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Rollout of Rio Tinto's AutoHaul and the overall expansion of rail operations require approval from state government and other agencies.
Image: Rio Tinto plans to use automatic trains to deliver iron ore to ports in Western Australia. Photo: Copyright © 2010 Rio Tinto.