By automating iron ore mine to improve safety and production

The world’s largest iron ore miner Vale plans to operate its Brucutu iron ore mine in Brazil with a fully autonomous fleet of vehicles next year, following a successful trial of driverless technology, to improve production and safety at the operation.

The trial involved the deployment of seven Caterpillar 793F CMD fully-autonomous trucks at the mine for a month, following six years of research and development. The project cost $62m and the site saw a 26% increase in the volume of ore transported during the trial, results that the company’s ferrous planning and development director Lúcio Cavalli called ‘promising’.

“The use of this type of technology is increasing in the world market, not only in the mining area. The use of autonomous equipment will bring gains in productivity and competitiveness for Vale and the Brazilian industry”, said Cavalli.

The company hopes that increasing the level of automation at its projects will improve safety. The same technology that enables the trucks to plot routes enables them to detect and avoid obstacles in close proximity, which can range from large rocks and vehicles to individual humans. More automated systems also means that fewer human workers, especially drivers, will need to be employed at the site, reducing the likelihood of an accident or collision with a person.

Vale plans to add another six Caterpillar vehicles to the site, making transport at the mine fully autonomous. The company estimates that this will reduce fuel consumption and maintenance costs by 10% each, and reduce wear on off-road truck tyres by 25%, as the vehicles are able to plot more efficient routes than human operators.

The mine was the largest in the world in terms of production capacity upon its opening in 2006, and produces around 21.9 million tonnes of iron ore per year. The operation currently employs around 1,700, and is now the second-largest mine in Brazil, behind the Carajás iron ore mine in Pará.