TRUCKS could soon disappear from some mines altogether, with BHP Billiton confirming it is investigating technology that could render the dump-truck irrelevant.
Just as the industry was growing accustomed to the notion of driverless and autonomous trucks working the world's mines, BHP executive Marcus Randolph said the resources giant was investigating mobile crushing and processing equipment that could be moved close to the ore, rather than the other way around.
''The technology has shifted … We have got to a point where we have sizers and crushers of substantial size that you can move in a day or two,'' he said.
''We are getting to the point where you can bring your crushers much closer to the face and it is practical to run mines without the truck, where the loading gear loads straight into your bulk mining system.''
BHP and particularly Rio Tinto have invested heavily in autonomous trucks and trains, which are claimed to have lower error rates, better productivity and reduce the costs of employing and accommodating drivers in remote mine sites such as the Pilbara.
But Mr Randolph said even greater savings and efficiencies could be gained if the trucks were removed altogether.
''When you run a truck, it takes 10 to 11 employees for every truck,'' he said.
''It takes 4½ to five to run it, all the crews that do the maintenance on it, all the camp people that do the camp cleaning and cooking and everything else.
''If you go autonomous you get rid of half of those. If you go truckless you get rid of all of them. You do this at a time when you see increasing diesel prices, carbon taxes, a number of reasons why getting rid of trucks or using fewer trucks is desirable.''
Mr Randolph said the technology was already viable in mines with soft ground that did not require blasting but he said it could be adapted to also work in mines that did require blasting.
He said the future was likely to have a place for both autonomous trucks and truckless mines, and BHP was ''focused on both''.
The comments came in a briefing with British investors overnight, where BHP discussed at length its plans for its iron ore and coal businesses.
Most notably, BHP said it could get significantly more export capacity for its iron ore within the Port Hedland inner harbour if smaller rivals failed to use their capacity.
Port Hedland Port Authority refused to confirm that such ''use it or lose it'' provisions existed, and smaller miners have previously bristled at such a suggestion.
Earlier this year the West Australian government assured smaller miners such as Atlas Iron, Hancock Prospecting and Brockman Mining their port capacities were secure.
But there is believed to be a class of capacity, known as D class, that allows an exporter to opportunistically take advantage of capacity that is not being used for some reason.