Joel Mowday has been working in mine site health and safety for 17 years.

Over that time he’s seen plenty of change, but never had a colleague quite like RORI – which is pretty understandable when you consider that’s an acronym which stands for Remote Operated Rescue Initiative.

“I never thought I’d see haul trucks driving themselves around in a pit and I never thought I’d see our trains operating themselves around the Pilbara,” Mowday laughs.

“And I definitely never imagined that I’d be involved in a project that would be putting firefighting robots into the field.

“But that’s the impressive thing about Rio Tinto. You propose an innovative idea to an operational problem and the business will back you, provide the funding to turn it into reality and see if it achieves the desired outcome.”

The desired outcome for RORI and his “employer” Rio Tinto is a robot equipped with firefighting capabilities that can fearlessly go where human counterparts can’t.

Safety exclusion zones established around minesite fires means emergency response personnel are restricted in how close they can get to a blaze and how much detail they can ascertain about the incident. RORI doesn’t face the same limitations and his ability to get up close to hazardous situations has the potential to protect equipment worth millions of dollars.

RORI being put through his paces.

RORI has been a couple of years in the making. The original concept came from emergency services personnel who, submitted the concept to Rio Tinto Pioneering Pitch innovation program and received early and ongoing support from Greater Brockman General Manager Steve Badenhorst.

Success in that program paved the way for a collaboration with Perth-based fire and emergency response supplier InterFire Agencies and robotics experts BIA5, out of which RORI was born.

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As Mowday – a Business Partner in Health & Safety – explains, RORI is more than just a firefighter.

“RORI is equipped with the obvious firefighting capabilities but is also able to provide us with real time data from the incident via in-built gas detection systems, a thermal imaging camera and pan-tilt cameras,” Mowday said.

“Real time data from the fire ground enables our emergency responders and business resilience team, who are sitting in a safe location outside the exclusion zone, to make strategic decisions on ways to respond to the fire event.

“RORI has a purpose-built, suspended track system that ensures the robot is going to be able to tackle the majority of terrains we’re going to face in an operational mining environment.

“It can go through fine material, it can go over rocks and it can go up stairs.”

Mowday highlighted potentially explosive “hot tyre” events as a long-standing operational challenge which RORI is particularly well-equipped to tackle.

“Those events have an exclusion zone of 300 metres due to the potential risks associated with that type of fire to our emergency responders,” he said.

“There’s no real [human] response capacity because of that and it often results in significant damage to equipment or total loss of assets due to us not wanting to expose our people to unnecessary risk.  

“It’s a problem that’s existed in the industry for an extended period of time and hadn’t been solved…all of a sudden this fit for purpose idea [RORI] pops up that keeps our equipment and assets safe but more importantly keeps our people safe and out of the line of fire.”

Joel Mowday talks to students at the Resources Technology Showcase.

After successful testing at Jandakot training venue ERGT, RORI made its public debut at June’s Resources Technology Showcase, proving a big hit with the thousands of school children who visited the event.

RORI’s next stop will be Greater Brockman itself, for testing in a genuine operational setting.

While RORI may have been designed for firefighting, Mowday believes the success of the project could inspire further creative and problem-solving robotics ventures in other parts of Rio Tinto’s business.

“With this type of technology being deployed into the field, the sky really is the limit,” Mowday said.