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Roy Hill heading down automation path

Roy Hill Holdings Pty. Ltd. plans to move to completely autonomous drilling by the second quarter of 2018 as it takes its first step toward potentially becoming a fully automated miner.

The Australian iron ore producer already has two drills operating autonomously at the Roy Hill mine in Western Australia's Pilbara region and is now working to automate the rest of its fleet.

"We've made the decision to automate our drills and that's moving on from the two we currently have," CEO Barry Fitzgerald said Oct. 4 at a Western Australian Mining Club event in Perth.

According to Fitzgerald, while the automation of the drills does provide some economic cost benefit, it is part of a collective effort to realize much greater efficiency and cost benefits.

"The autonomous drills are slightly cost beneficial in terms of overall economics, so they do provide a net economic return, but we think they are part of a much larger package, which will drive the whole move forward," he said.

"As a new company we need to make sure we move forward in sensible steps, and so autonomous drilling is actually a good way to start introducing autonomy into the business."

Roy Hill has also implemented cruise control in its trains and may consider moving to a fully autonomous rail system at a later stage.

Fitzgerald told reporters the company made sure it had the option of upgrading its trains to full automation.

"The technology we've got, which has got in cab signaling, is capable of being upgraded to autonomous train on a relatively simple path," he said.

"At the moment we think that cruise control is probably a good mix between sort of best train driving and the next move. So at this stage we want to get most of the benefits from cruise control and driver assist, but we keep the option open because the technology provides for the next stage to be developed for it."

The news follows Rio Tinto's successful completion of its first fully autonomous rail journey at its iron ore operations in the Pilbara.

The nearly 100-kilometer pilot run was completed without a driver on board, making it the first fully autonomous heavy haul train journey ever completed in Australia.