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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Could Robots Replace Humans in Mines?

robot coal mine
A mining robot, called Groundhog, in action at a Pennsylvania coal mine

robot coal mine 2
The Cave Crawler mining robot, the latest prototype developed by Carnegie-Mellon University.
Why do human beings still risk their lives burrowing miles under ground and doing one of the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs in the world?
A small corps of engineers and robotics experts envision a day in the not-too-distant future when robots and other technology do most of the dangerous mining work, and even help rescue trapped miners.

One of the first mining robots was developed five years ago at Carnegie-Mellon University's Robotics Institute. It was called Groundhog and it looked like a golf cart on steroids. It used lasers to "see" in dark tunnels and map abandoned mines — some of the most dangerous work in the business. Researchers sent Groundhog into an abandoned mine in Pennsylvania where it slogged deep into the orange muck, successfully navigating with its laser rangefinders.

The latest prototype is called Cave Crawler. It's a bit smaller than Groundhog, and even more advanced. It can take photos and video and has sensors mounted that can detect the presence of dangerous gases. Cave Crawler is entirely self-contained— no tethers connecting it to the surface — and "learns" as it roams a mine by mapping its environment in three dimensions then following the map it has just created.

Those who have seen Cave Crawler in action are impressed. "It's fascinating to watch," says Paul Myles, director of sponsored programs at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia, which took part in the robotics study. "The robot has a real sense of logic. If it encounters an obstacle it gets momentarily confused. It has to think through the process and where to go next, and sometimes it throws a fit just like a real person."

Using robots in rescue operations, though, is problematic. The lasers that guide the robots don't work in smoky environments so the engineers at Carnegie Mellon have experimented with sonar and radar guidance systems, and with some success.

The biggest obstacle, though, is cost. The original research project was federally funded, but that money has dried up, and it's not clear where future funding will come from. Robots need to be certified by the federal government, and that is a costly and time-consuming process.

Some experts predict that robots in mines will serve much of the same function that they do in the automotive industry. The robots do the most repetitive and dangerous jobs, but don't eliminate the need for human workers.