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Rio Tinto leveraging on startups in greenfields exploration

Rio Tinto is talking to technology startups to help it find and develop what it believes to be significant deposits that still exist in Australia, such as the Winu copper discovery.

The miner's Growth & Innovation Group Executive Stephen McIntosh told reporters on the sidelines of the Diggers & Dealers conference in Kalgoorlie, Australia, on Aug. 5 that technology will "play a big part" of the Winu project in Western Australia. McIntosh said Rio Tinto needs to look for an investment case for Winu that's bankable, relatively low capital and low risk, so Rio Tinto is primarily focused on defining a potential open pit case for Winu.

To work towards this, Rio Tinto is seeking to employ machine learning and sophisticated mathematical models to analyze the massive quantities of field data expected to be generated there.

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Rio Tinto Growth & Innovation Group Executive Stephen McIntosh addresses the Diggers & Dealers Conference in Kalgoorlie, Australia, on Aug. 5.

Source: Diggers & Dealers

While Rio Tinto already has a data science capability inside the group that is maturing "very quickly," McIntosh said the company is now talking increasingly to data startups that are supporting the exploration sector, to help "crack the code" to explore under cover.

While such startups are common in Australia and North America, McIntosh said Rio Tinto is talking to more in the former in an effort to progress Winu faster than it has advanced projects historically.

This is part of the "pivot" Rio Tinto has begun since Jean-Sébastien Jacques took over as CEO in July 2016 in focusing on internal rates of return as the primary measure of value versus net present value, which had generally attracted companies to "the biggest possible scale of project."

This new focus will drive Rio Tinto to "start small" and moving quickly to scale while being focused on margin. McIntosh said the company needs to expand its horizons to include those assets that are bankable, relatively low capital and low technical risk.

Rio Tinto is also deploying new technology at its other advanced exploration play, Star Diamond Corp.'s FalCon diamond project in Canada, of which Rio Tinto has an option to take 60% if the project goes ahead.

A custom-built, modified trench cutter is being used for the first time to sample kimberlite pipe, as prior drilling methods had resulted in potential under-sampling of diamonds, or the breakage of larger stones.

McIntosh noted that as explorers which specialize either by region or commodity consolidated from the 1980s to the mid-2000s, early stage exploration specialist domain expertise fell away in the sector, along with professional development.

This has left "very few companies with the requisite finances and domain expertise" to take on the task of exploring deeper under cover to find the next generation of deposits, and McIntosh believes the industry as a whole needs to consider this issue.

Thus Rio Tinto has taken a more sophisticated approach to combine public and proprietary data, and is utilizing advances in assessment techniques to identify new targets, as was done on the Winu discovery.