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A six-metre-long test model of the Yara Birkeland, an autonomous ship.

Driverless freight trains are roaring across Australia's outback, part of Rio Tinto Ltd.'s bid to cut costs and boost efficiencies as it moves iron ore from its mines to the ports.

The mining company ran its first autonomous train in late September, and now runs 60 per cent of its rail journeys in "attendant mode" – a person is in the cab but not in control. Rio Tinto plans to have all its trains in Western Australia operating without crews by next year, assuming it wins the backing of the rail regulator.

The autonomous trains are running 6 per cent faster than conventional locomotives, while reducing maintenance costs and improving safety, said Stephen McIntosh, the Rio Tinto executive in charge of the miner's growth and innovation group.

"There is clearly a value case, but one of the strong drivers for autohaul is the safety case," Mr. McIntosh said by phone from Brisbane, Australia.

Resource companies are turning to autonomous technology to run more of their operations, from trains and trucks to ships and highly automated ports. As auto makers and governments debate how driverless cars and trucks will mesh with urban and rural road systems, the companies that mine and transport industrial commodities are removing humans from the controls as a way to cut costs while improving speed, safety and efficiency.

Autonomous operations are slowly taking hold in the world's supply chain of commodities and cargo, from Chinese ports to Norwegian shipping and Australian mines.

"Autonomous vehicles are being explored for their ability to improve productivity by substituting automation for labour, the driver," said Garland Chow, a professor at University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business.

It could be more than a decade before autonomous technology improves enough to allow driverless trucks to operate safely around other vehicles. And although many urban passenger rail systems are capable of running without drivers, safety is cited as the reason human control has not been eliminated, Dr. Chow said.

But remote rail operations with little other vehicle traffic such as Rio Tinto's pose fewer safety concerns and are "ideal" for autonomous operations, said Dr. Chow, who studies supply chains and intelligent transportation systems.

Rio Tinto's trains, along with a fleet of 70 300-tonne mining trucks, allow Rio Tinto to apply Big Data solutions to what is essentially digging stuff out of the ground and putting it on a ship.

Each autonomous truck sports 45 sensors and churns out five terabytes of data a day. Combined with the data generated by the other 820 driver-operated trucks, Rio Tinto amasses 4,500 terabytes of data it uses for everything from scheduled maintenance to more precise routes. As a result, Rio Tinto says its automated trucks work an extra 1,000 hours a year and cost 15 per cent less to run than a regular truck.

In December, China's Shanghai port became the world's largest automated container terminal. The Shanghai Yangshan Deep Water Port, already the world's busiest cargo-box port, has 50 cranes and 50 automated vehicles loading and unloading containers in a trial phase that will expand over time, according to China's state-owned media. The goal is to boost efficiency of moving cargo as well as reduce emissions, according to reports.

The world's biggest miner, BHP Billiton Ltd., and Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC are planning autonomous ships. In Norway, fertilizer maker Yara International SA plans to sail a crewless, battery-powered cargo ship by 2020.

Oslo-based fertilizer maker Yara is spending $62-million on its autonomous ship, the Yara Birkeland, which is being developed by Kongsberg Gruppen, a Norwegian company that makes technology for the aerospace, oil and marine industries.

The 80-metre Yara Birkeland will carry 120 containers of fertilizer from the production plant in Porsgrunn to two ports, Brevik and Larvik, more than 50 kilometres away. From there, the fertilizer containers will be transferred by autonomous cranes to ocean-going ships bound for customers in Asia and South America.

"It will be fully automatic," Yara's Kristin Nordal says. "The vessel will pull in by itself, attach [and] charge the batteries automatically and there will be cranes loading and unloading."

The self-guided ship will replace 40,000 diesel-truck journeys a year, reducing local pollution and traffic congestion while making the roads that trace the fjords safer.

"We are doing it to cut emissions and to make it more efficient to transport," Ms. Nordal says by phone from Oslo. "Although the initial investment will be higher than a similar sized conventional ship, the [operating] costs will be significantly lower."

Peter Due, director of Kongsberg's autonomy division, said crewless, electrical operations are well suited to smaller ships on shorter routes, not the ocean-going vessels that require far more labour to maintain and face more perilous voyages.

Autonomous shipping holds the promise of safer marine jobs with shorter shifts in on-shore control centres close to home, he said.

The Yara Birkeland is powered by a 7.5-megawatt battery, which is charged at port and is the equivalent of 16 million triple A batteries. The weight of the battery serves as much of the ballast, which stabilizes a vessel. The rest of the ballast is a water system that is sealed to prevent the spread of invasive species.

But in a ship that will steer its own course while buffeted by waves, winds and worse, the most innovative system is the navigation control.

The ship navigates using sensors that are fed with several layers of information – GPS, inertia navigation systems, 3-D mobile imaging built by lasers, sonar, radar, and others.

"Layer by layer by layer … you get a picture of what is happening around the vessel," Mr. Due said. "We are also weighing the quality of these systems, so if we have poor signals on one system we can rate other signals higher. If you have poor visibility, for example, on the optical system then we can rely more on lidar and radar systems." (Lidar is a three-dimensional mapping system generated by lasers.)

The Yara Birkeland has a "brain" – as Mr. Due calls it – that learns from experiences, and knows where to go and how to react to currents, groundings and fires. That's because even before the ship is built, its digital twin is already navigating the Norwegian coast in a simulator in Kongsberg's lab.

"These simulators are as close to the real world as you can come," Mr. Due says. "The autonomy brain does not know if it's the real world or if it's the simulator." So when the vessel launches "it already knows its operation from the simulator. So in theory you could just launch it and say good-bye and it sails off by itself."

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