To improve the productivity of its mining operations, Rio Tinto Iron Ore has invested billions of dollars in automated drilling equipment, trucks and trains. And in 2016 complex new scheduling software developed in collaboration with the University of Melbourne has also been deployed to help keep this equipment on track and on time.
At the university’s School of Computing and Information Systems, Professor Adrian Pearce has led the five-year software project, jointly funded by Rio Tinto and an Australian Government Research Council grant.
He says the software was designed to harmonise the operations of the robotic mining equipment at its Pilbara mining complex in Western Australia, which is controlled from an office in Perth 1500 kilometres away.
To do that his project team drew together researchers with skills in optimising multi-agent systems, constraint solving and optimisation, mathematics, computer science, software engineering and artificial intelligence planning.
He says the operating environment changes constantly as ore is mined, and this requires the constant readjustment of mining equipment to provide steady production, consistent quality and a reliably delivered product. Mining and moving ore is also energy intensive, and the scheduling helps to ensure ore is moved as efficiently as possible to feed to crushers to maintain productivity.
Professor Pearce says the long-term aim is to improve the productivity of the mines and get the best return on investment from both the ore resource and the mining equipment for company shareholders, and for the Australian economy.
While the programming challenge has originated in the mining sphere, he says it could be equally applied in other areas, from agriculture and infrastructure management to health care, defence and even potentially retail sales and e-commerce.
It represents a systematic approach to optimise production over a complex supply chain, and we have an appetite to expand its application, he says.