ROBOTIC TECHNOLOGY FOR COAL MINING
Mining for resources hidden under the surface of the earth has never been a job devoid of hazards. You can start with the fact the it’s under the earth, and there’s no natural light, and the spaces can get tiny so it’s clearly not a job even for the mildly claustrophobic. Then there’s the danger of cave-ins that do happen even with all the modern marvels that we have access to thanks to advances in structural engineering. When it comes to coal mining, however, the danger is several times greater due to added danger of highly flammable gases in certain parts.
Other than the Japanese using them for what basically amounts to some amusing (robotic pets), and some disconcerting (robots that look like creepy versions of children or grown women, etc) toys, the use of robotic technology has almost overwhelmingly been either to go where man hasn’t or cannot go, or in some other cases to augment human ability to do what was hitherto very difficult. We have robotic rover vehicles landing on the mars, tiny robotic devices that enter tiny pipelines carrying potentially deadly chemicals to check for leaks, we even have robotic aircrafts that survey or destroy targets, controlled from far away without risking a pilot’s life.
So there’s no reason why mining should not benefit from robotic technology, and work on machine power instead of endangering so many lives. Efforts are already on to develop robots that could ultimately replace human effort completely when it comes to subterranean mining. Experts, however, warn us not to get our hopes too high: while the possibilities are limitless, practicality dictates that time and money constraints would ultimately be a big deciding factor. However, even as we write this, scientists are developing ways and means to introduce robotic mining units into supplementary roles in mining operations. Also, a big application for now could also be for rescue work in the event of any hazardous situation presenting itself.
Robots to Explore and Map Inaccessible Mines
Over the past few years, he said, researchers have developed robots that could autonomously explore and map underground mines.
In 2002, the Groundhog robot was sent into an abandoned coal mine inaccessible to humans because of low oxygen levels and toxic mud. With its laser range sensors, a night vision camera, gas detectors and a gyroscope, the robot was designed to move through a mine to gather information potentially helpful to humans.
Carnegie Mellon researchers subsequently developed the Cave Crawler, a smaller, more mobile version of the Groundhog. The idea behind both robots is to gather photographs, physical measurements and other data about a subterranean space to build accurate models for humans. This could help mining companies to make more informed decisions in case they need to, say, reroute through an old, sealed (deemed hazardous more often than not) mine.
This in turn provides enough information for the planners to plan ahead on safety routines.
Robots Could Help With Rescue Efforts
Information provided by robots, he said, could help make the process more efficient.
Similarly, he said, robots could help speed up rescue efforts. While strict procedures govern how rescue personnel can advance in a rescue situation, those procedures don’t apply to inanimate robots. Once issues regarding the safety and durability of the machines are addressed, robots could be sent ahead to help locate trapped miners.
However, experts contend that while robots might make life a lot easier for miners, they aren’t going to be replacing humans just yet. The many variable factors in mining that needs the experience and intelligence of a human thinker would ensure that. Perhaps they closes they could come to that would be if they could devise a way for seasoned miners to control the machines from a distance but even that is close to fiction for now. Here’s why.
With more and more computerized mechanisms to improve safety, we’re still not past the stage where the near future only envisages man and machine together inside the mine. The challenge with the above described remote control scenario is the same as the problems with contacting miners that are inside: it is difficult getting a signal when you’re under several layers of rock. So no matter how advanced the technology, the stumbling block is the most primitive there can be.
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