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The Pilbara is the ideal place to trial any equipment, autonomous or not, with summer temperatures here regularly eclipsing 45 degrees Celsius.

Partnership makes perfection

July 3, 2024

In the Australian Outback, Epiroc and Fortescue are working together to develop a drill rig that pushes the boundaries of autonomous mining.

We’ve entered Nick Howlett’s sandpit. That’s what it feels like, anyway. It’s deep in the Outback, 1 500 kilometers north of Perth. Take a 90-minute flight from the Western Australian capital, drive 20 minutes into the Iron Bridge mine, past its expansive camp, then past the mine’s operations center and towering crusher.

Wend your way further, climbing beyond the central pit, and there you’ll find an Epiroc SmartROC D65 surface drill working a drill pattern. The rig finishes a hole, collects its pipes and trams to the next in the sequence. It could be a typical blast-drilling scene, but for one striking difference – there’s no operator in the cabin.

Operators next to SmartROC D65 Autonomous

An Automation Specialist, Epiroc’s Nick Howlett (left) is on the frontlines of the company’s cutting edge developments in autonomous mining.

Five kilometers away, back down the hill in the mine’s operations center, Howlett watches by video link as the SmartROC D65 drills another hole. And another. And then another. He smiles. Welcome to the future of autonomous mining.

Iron Bridge is an ambitious joint venture mining project between Fortescue Metals Group subsidiary FMG Magnetite and Formosa Steel IB, the $US3.9 billion

operation producing high-grade magnetite.


“It’s great to be working with Epiroc here at Iron Bridge and seeing the SmartROC D65 drill in action,” says Graham Howard, Director of Operations at Iron Bridge.

"It’s great to be working with Epiroc here at Iron Bridge and seeing the SmartROC D65 drill in action"

Graham Howard ,Director of Operations at Iron Bridge

You can find an occasional shard of magnetite sitting on the Martian-red earth. The beguiling black mineral is scorching hot under the 45-degree Celsius sun. Those kinds of temperatures make this an ideal place to trial any equipment, autonomous or not. But Iron Bridge presents other opportunities to put this new test version of the SmartROC D65 Autonomous through its paces. The magnetite is buried in hard rock beneath meters of looser clay-like soil and then transitional earth, meaning the rig is drilling under various conditions.

“We want that,” says Howlett, an Epiroc Automation Specialist. “It’s how we develop and make a good product."

Operator in front of SmartROC D65 Autonomous

Nick Howlett Automation Specialist, Epiroc

Fortescue has a reputation for being a forward-thinking mining house. It has been pursuing autonomous solutions for well over a decade, making it a natural partner in the SmartROC D65 Autonomous program.

Epiroc and Fortescue entered a partnership in 2021 to trial this MKII version of Epiroc’s SmartROC D65 Autonomous. This project followed a 2018 SmartROC D65 Autonomous MKI pilot project in Canada. A successful test would provide Fortescue with an autonomous blast drill solution and Epiroc with vital test intel under realistic mining conditions.


“There’s no doubt autonomous is the way the industry’s going,” says Epiroc Australia General Manager and Managing Director Wayne Sterley. “And that speaks to the inherent productivity, efficiency and safety gains of autonomous solutions.”

An autonomous SmartROC D65 rig’s advantages aren’t down to pure speed but tend to accumulate over time via a clever use of autonomous subsystems and the high quality and consistency of the holes it produces.

“A manual operator could maybe beat us over an hour or so, but that’s not what it’s about,” Howlett says. “It’s about consistency. When the operator goes for a break, we drill. If there’s blasting nearby, we drill. And our shift changes tend to be shorter.
“We’ve spent a lot of time perfecting how the rig drills autonomously, including water control, how it starts a hole, and the tricky aspects of collaring. We’ve also tuned it for different types of ground, with five different settings. You set these different parameters, the operator selects one and the drill gets to work.”

In Control Room operating SmartROC D65 Autonomous

Nick Howlett operates the SmartROC D65 MKII Autonomous rig’s teleremote station inside Iron Bridge’s air-conditioned operations center.

The SmartROC D65 Autonomous has also had an edge in pre-split drilling. At Iron Bridge, operators drill up to 30 meters at an angle, meaning it’s relatively easy for unintended deviations in holes. The autonomous rig has been more precise in these scenarios, making for better drilling predictions and, in turn, easier drill plan adjustments.

Consistency also has positive impacts on equipment life cycles, with the SmartROC D65 MKII Autonomous rig’s autonomous algorithms utilizing components such as cylinders, feed chains, rotation heads, and rock drilling tools more optimally.

At its test site, the rig looks similar to a manually operated drill but features Lidar and cameras on the machine’s front, back and top. There are also automation mode (“safe-to-board”) lights for transitioning from remote to local operations. Surrounding traffic cones mark out the SmartROC D65 MKII Autonomous rig’s “geofence,” or perimeter of autonomous operations. Still, the real magic happens at the tele remote station back at the Iron Bridge operations center. Howlett drives us down the hill to see it in action.
General Manager in Australia portrait

"We have the opportunity to put people in a safer working environment, and help them be more productive and efficient"

Wayne Sterley ,General Manager and Managing Director, Epiroc Australia
Inside Iron Bridge’s air-conditioned nerve center is a hive of activity, with rows upon rows of personnel tapping away at workstations. The SmartROC D65 MKII Autonomous rig’s tele remote station sits in a separate low-lit control room. It features two joysticks, a touch screen like that inside the rig, and three additional LCD screens that display critical operational information – hole and drill pattern progress, a video stream from the rig’s onboard camera system, and the drill’s technical state and alarms. And yet it just needs an internet connection and the station could be in Perth, where many Iron Bridge personnel live, or indeed anywhere in the world.
SmartROC D65 Autonomous at sunrise

Nick Howlett has been putting the Epiroc SmartROC D65 MKII Autonomous rig through its paces at Iron Bridge mine, 1 500 kilometers north of Perth.

“Like any new tech, there’s been some skepticism,” Howlett says. “But [Fortescue] has begun to advertise for jobs for autonomous operators and there’s been a lot of interest. One of the lads told me he sees it as an opportunity to see more of his family in Perth.”

“We have the opportunity to put people in a safer working environment, and help them be more productive and efficient,” Sterley adds. “By taking on this digital transformation, we’ll attract more talent into the industry.”

So, what’s next for the SmartROC D65 Autonomous program? After success at Iron Bridge, 2024 is about tackling autonomous contour mining at Fortescue’s nearby Solomon Hub.

“There’s a lot of knowledge about path planning and obstacle detection but not about tramming for contour operations,” Howlett says. “Those are wicked challenges. We’re looking forward to giving it a crack.”



Epiroc and Fortescue

Epiroc agreed to a partnership with Fortescue Ltd. in 2021 to use the SmartROC D65 MKII Autonomous on a Fortescue mine site for a trial period of at least 12 months. Iron Bridge Mine was selected as the best-fit site for the trial’s objectives. The trial began in 2022, and the rig hit production KPIs in May 2023.
Iron Bridge entrance in Australia

Iron Bridge

- Located in the Pilbara in Western Australia, Iron Bridge is a joint venture between Fortescue Ltd subsidiary FMG Magnetite and Formosa Steel IB

- The $US3.9 billion project produces high-grade magnetite, the high-ironcontent ore destined for Southeast Asia to help steelmakers reduce carbon emissions

- Iron Bridge is part of a broader Fortescue strategy to raise the iron content of its product suite


Established in 2003, the Western Australian-based Fortescue Ltd. now ships more than 190 million metric tons of iron ore annually. It is one of the most cost-effective iron ore producers in the world. Fortescue has been pursuing automation and autonomous solutions for well over a decade. In 2012, it introduced its first autonomous haulage truck and was the first company in the world to deploy an autonomous haulage system on a commercial scale. 

Five keys to success

1. Partnership

Epiroc’s autonomous SmartROC D65 test program has benefited from having a willing partner like Fortescue. A successful test has provided Epiroc with valuable information under real-world mining conditions and Fortescue with a best-inclass autonomous solution.


2.  Conditions

The Australian Outback is a tough place to drill, and the SmartROC D65 MKII Autonomous has been tasked with drilling through different densities of earth and rock, making for ideal real-world test conditions.


3. Support

Close collaboration onsite between the Iron Bridge and Epiroc teams has provided a continuous feedback flow. Thanks to direct communications with Epiroc’s programmers in Sweden, even minor software updates have been quickly delivered and applied.

4. Technology

Epiroc has been at the forefront of autonomous drilling since its first autonomous Pit Viper drill was released in 2014. It has made strategic agnostic autonomous acquisitions, giving it an edge when developing new products.

5. Consistency

Success at Iron Bridge comes down to consistency with the SmartROC D65 MKII Autonomous capable of drilling during blasting and operator breaks. It has demonstrated a particular edge in production and pre-split drilling.


Continued testing


As of 2024, all activities related to autonomous implementation and future development were moved to Solomon Mine. 



Surface mining & quarrying International Australia 2024 SmartROC D65 Customer story