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Energy

Australian coal mines ride self-driving wave

BHP and Mitsubishi eye cost reductions from autonomous trucks and AI

A coal mine in eastern Australia run by BHP and Mitsubishi.

TOKYO -- BHP Group and Mitsubishi Corp. are spending an estimated 50 billion yen ($455 million) on autonomous haul trucks and communications infrastructure to slash production costs and improve efficiency at mines, aiming to insulate themselves from price swings.

BHP Mitsubishi Alliance, a 50-50 joint venture of the Anglo-Australian mining major and a unit of the Japanese trading house, will deploy around 90 autonomous dump trucks this year at one of seven mines it operates in eastern Australia. Plans are to enlarge the fleet to 350 in around two years.

Vehicles used will come from the likes of U.S. manufacturer Caterpillar and Japan's Komatsu, which has more than 180 trucks operating under its Autonomous Haulage System in mines around the world.

Conventional dump trucks will be retrofitted with communications devices so that they can be controlled remotely. Using these vehicles can slash a mine's production costs by as much as 15%. The partners will also improve wireless infrastructure, including towers, tapping 5G technology.

BMA co-owner Mitsubishi Development contributed 246.9 billion yen to Mitsubishi's net profit in fiscal 2018, generating roughly 40% of the company's consolidated income. But this shrank to 76.2 billion yen in the April-September half of fiscal 2019 as prices fell amid a loss of global economic momentum. This is why Mitsubishi and others in the industry seek to make their earnings less vulnerable to the vagaries of prices.

Starting this year, BHP and Mitsubishi will also jointly develop a big-data system for mine operation, collecting data on their trucks, utilization rates, weather conditions, production and shipments for artificial-intelligence-aided analysis. The aim is to increase utilization rates for haul trucks by predicting breakdowns, for instance.

These moves will also aid environmental efforts, since operating mines more efficiently means lower carbon dioxide emissions. BHP wants its greenhouse gas emissions in 2022 to be at 2017 levels or less.

BMA is one of the world's largest mining operations, producing about 70 million tons of coal for steelmaking. It also runs a coal terminal.

Rio Tinto and Mitsui & Co. are also ramping up their shift to driverless tech at mines. In December 2018, they rolled out the world's first autonomous freight rail network in Western Australia for transporting iron ore from around 15 mines in the Pilbara region to ports via diesel train on roughly 1,700 km of track. The remote control center is located in Perth, some 1,500 km away.

Operation data, vibration levels and weather conditions are analyzed with the help of AI. Damaged tracks are repaired in advance to enhance utilization, helping to increase productivity by several percentage points.

Mitsui operates joint projects with BHP and Rio Tinto. The Australian iron ore business is responsible for an annual 100 billion yen or so of profit at the Japanese trading house.

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