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BHP to Expand Driverless Truck Trials: What This Means for Mining

BHP Billiton get's set to introduce driverless trucks

BHP Billiton is looking to expand its driverless mining truck trials into their New South Wales and Queensland within the next 12 months. These autonomous trucks are becoming more common in the iron ore mines in the West Australian Pilbara region. Rio Tinto, one of BHP’s biggest rivals, introduced the trucks to the sector, and is still ahead of BHP in terms of the number of trucks in use.

Rio Tinto will have 40 driverless trucks up and running in Pilbara this year, but BHP is leading the charge to bring the trucks to the east coast of Australia; Rio Tinto has not yet proposed this move for their company. Rio’s 40 trucks is twice the number BHP will have in their mines after they start trials in Wheelara. This is an expansion from their truck testing at the Jimblebar iron ore mine.

Some driverless trucks will be trialled at BHP coal mines, a new frontier for the technology. Originally, the autonomous trucks were designed for use in iron ore mines.

“We’re looking at [...] opportunities in coal to do the same thing, in Queensland and NSW,” said head of BHP Coal, Dean Dalla Valle. “There’s no doubt it will happen, and I’d like to think that within 12 months we will be running trials.”

Although BHP was late into the automated equipment race, this was not because of a reluctance to employ the technology. Now, the autonomous trucks would cut costs by reducing the need to house, feed and employ four drivers. The expansion into autonomous coal transport would be different from transporting iron ore, “but once the system’s up and running, it should work effectively in both,” Dalla Valle said.

The adaptation of this helpful technology will assist BHP’s push towards productivity and efficiency in a market where depressed thermal and coking coal prices have made the sector sluggish. BHP’s coal unit has been at the front of the productivity drive by reducing costs and completing new projects under budget. The Caval Ridge coking coal mine is set to be brought on in Queensland early and under budget.

The sluggish nature of the sector has not just affected BHP - all of the major mining companies would benefit from implementing similar technology within their own operations. Currently, Rio and BHP seem to be the only companies taking advantage of the driverless truck push. Since it is in the trial stage with both companies, and has not been implemented widely, employees and drivers still have a few years before the standard in the industry changes to autonomous.

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