R/C trains haul ore in extreme heat so humans don't have to

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R/C trains haul ore in extreme heat so humans don't have to

It gets hot in the Australian outback; like, really hot. We're talking "130 degrees fahrenheit in the shade" sort of hot -- definitely not the sort of place that many people would want to even visit, much less work in on a daily basis. But this inhospitable environment is also extremely well-endowed with iron ore deposits. So how does one extract this valuable mineral from the Earth -- and then transport it more than 200 miles, no less -- without baking legions of miners? If you're the Roy Hill mining company, you just install a 21-locomotive fleet of GE's remote controlled heavy-haul trains. "We don't run a locomotive anywhere in the world that's hotter than here," Fraser Borden from GE Transportation said in a statement.

Roy Hill figures it can extract upwards of 55 million tons of ore every year thanks to these smart locomotives. Each one boasts a 4,400 horsepower engine and a set of four can propel each 232-car long, 30,000 ton ore shipment up to 50 mph. That translates into four, 4-hour rides every day from the company's mine in the remote Pilbara region out to a stockyard in Port Headland. "Every time they go past that point, they transmit data that's received at our Remote Monitoring and Diagnostic Center in Erie, Pa., and that enables us to get a status update on the locomotives- the different parameters of oil and water temperature and so on," Borden said. "If that system detects that there's an issue, it sends a recommended-repair notification to the customer."

Four hours is still a very long time to be stuck in a locomotive travelling through 130-degree heat. That's why these engines can be remote controlled. They're outfitted with GE's Locotrol Distributed Power system: a series of 250 telemetry and environmental sensors that generate 9 million data points every hour. Engineers working from a (hopefully air conditioned) remote location can moderate each of the four locomotive's power outputs as easily as if they were in the cab themselves.

"If you have a two-kilometer train and you're going over a hill, if the front two locomotives are going down the hill, you don't want them accelerating," Borden says, "whereas the locomotive that's in the middle of the rake still need to be pushing. So this system automatically distributes the power appropriately, depending on where the locomotive is on the hill." While the current iteration of the Locotrol system does need a human at the helm, GE is reportedly working on a fully-automated version as well.

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