Rio Tinto trials CSIRO's autonomous vehicles at aluminium smelter

Completes molten delivery without human intervention

A trial of CSIRO automation technology at Rio Tinto Aluminium's Bell Bay Smelter in Tasmania is underway, aiming to demonstrate the benefits of automating large Hot Metal Carriers (HMC).

Working as part of the Light Metals National Research Flagship, CSIRO ICT centre scientists have been developing automated vehicle technology which could be deployed at the Bell Bay aluminium smelter in the next few years.

The CSIRO's project leader, Dr Jonathan Roberts says it may sound like science fiction but autonomous vehicles have been operating in some factories for over a decade and heavy industrial settings, such as aluminium smelters are the next frontier.

"Our research and technology are unique in the world because we aim to operate these vehicles autonomously in conditions including extreme heat and dust, very high magnetic fields, and poor weather," Roberts said.

Safety is a prime factor when developing automated vehicles that operate in the same environment as people and the automated system has a number of in-built safety systems including an obstacle detection system.

"Even if there is a complete system failure the vehicle simply stops where it is," he added.

In 2005, a 20-tonne HMC was shipped from Bell Bay in Tasmania's north to the CSIRO ICT Centre's Autonomous Systems Laboratory in Brisbane where, for the past two years, a team of researchers and engineers have been developing an autonomous system capable of delivering buckets of molten aluminium without human intervention.

The system has operated autonomously for over 200 hours at the Brisbane test facility.

Rio Tinto Aluminium aims to automate many aspects of the reduction process, including the transport of molten metal between the reduction lines and the casting shop.

Rio Tinto's capital projects manager at Bell Bay, Wolfgang Wissmann, says that, if successful, the development of self guided autonomous vehicles for the transport and handling of molten metal will deliver health, safety and productivity gains to the business.

"The CSIRO technology means operations are more precise and more productive while vehicle maintenance and damage could be reduced," Wissmann said.

Since June, the CSIRO team has been running a trial on a manned operational HMC at the Bell Bay smelter, where key components are being put through their paces before being migrated onto the next generation vehicle in late 2008. This work is an early success from CSIRO's recent expansion of its ICT research into Tasmania.

Tasmanian ICT centre business development manager, Lyle Borlase, said collaboration has been an important step in building skills in robotics and automation.

"It is important that our research has immediate application in industry; we are particularly keen to also help small to medium enterprises access CSIRO's capabilities and intellectual property," she added.

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