Speleology is the science that studies the formation and constitution of natural underground cavities. In mining, the speleologist is an essential professional. The data collected by them, such as the topographical survey and the identification of the living beings in these environments, are what determine the relevance of the cavity and, consequently, the feasibility or not of a mining project. But the speleologist’s work is not easy. Contrary to common sense, many of these cavities are not big caves or grottos with easy access. Most cavities in regions with the presence of iron ore are generally narrow and difficult to access, where the professional can face many different risks during fieldwork, such as a partial collapse of the ceiling, the presence of wild and poisonous animals and fungi.
Thinking of the daily work of these professionals, the Speleology and Technology team, of the Ferrous Development and Planning Board at Vale, took the initiative of developing a remotely operated robotic device, with cameras and a lighting system, capable of moving across rough terrain and executing the inspection of the cavities. The objective was to avoid, as much as possible, the presence of the speleologist within these locations. Thereafter, the Vale Institute of Technology (ITV), of Minas Gerais, and the Brazilian Robotics Institute of SENAI/CIMATEC, in Bahia, joined the project with the objective of increasing the robot’s abilities. An interchangeable locomotion system and a tower capable of executing three-dimensional mapping of the cavities are being included.
The mapping is done remotely, using a three-dimensional laser capable of tracking around 30 thousand points a second, with high-resolution cameras. These points are interlinked, generating a color three-dimensional cloud, which represents the investigated cavity, visualized in virtual reality environments. As well as increasing safety, one gains in the quality of the topographical mapping, which is a demand of the environmental legislation for the purposes of licensing.
The interchangeable locomotion system, in turn, allows that the robot moves using wheels, tires, tracks or legs, giving mobility conditions to different types of terrain, also using a hybrid locomotion system. The robot can move with four wheels and two legs. The interchangeable locomotion system is a pioneering technology, as well as the mapping tower.