Is it possible to replace miners by robots? Or could we use robots to rescue trapped miners? In this article, NPR attempts to answer these questions. It is true that robots would be ideal to fill these very dangerous jobs. Obviously, they can go where humans can't. The NPR article looks at two mining robots developed at Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU). It also says that because these robots are expensive, 'the U.S. mining industry has shown little interest in funding such research.' This is understandable for their point of view. But even if the number of miners -- and the number of casualties -- has been largely reduced in the so-called developed countries, it's not the same situation in other places. So is there a market for mining robots in China or elsewhere?
As mentioned above, the NPR article focuses on two mining robots designed at CMU's Robotics Institute. The first one, Groundhog, was designed to map abandoned old mines. You can see above a newer version named Cave Crawler (Credit: CMU's Robotics Institute). Here is a link to a larger version.
Here is how NPR describes the 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."
You can see above a photo of the Cave Crawler robot just before entering a mine (Credit: CMU's Robotics Institute). Here is a link to a larger version.
These two robots have been part of the Subterranean Robotics project. This program was led by William L. "Red" Whittaker, Professor of Robotics and Director of the Field Robotics Center, and Scott Thayer, a systems scientist who has now left the Robotics Institute. For additional information, here is a link to a gallery showing the robots designed at CMU between 1983 and 2005.
Let's go back to the NPR article to discover how hard it is to deploy these mining robots. "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. So far, the U.S. mining industry has shown little interest in funding such research.
In fact, mining companies are looking at cheaper -- and in some cases, more efficient -- technologies to make mining safer. "For instance, ropes that emit low-level light that can help miners find their way out of a dark tunnel. Another promising technology uses ultra-low frequency text-messaging that can penetrate rock and enable mine officials to communicate with workers miles below the surface."
And here is how NPR concludes its story. "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."
Sources: Eric Weiner, NPR, August 9, 2007; and various websites
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