Coal Mining: Could Robots Do Humans' Dirty Work?

Could robotic technology replace humans in coal mines?

April 7, 2010— -- Coal mining has long been one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. But with so many advances in communications and robotics technology, why do humans still need to do it?

Especially in the aftermath of the coal mine explosion that rocked West Virginia earlier this week, the issue seems even more relevant.

If we can navigate the Mars Rover from Earth or send pilotless spy planes into enemy zones, why can't the mining industry rely on smart machines instead of risking the lives of men?

Experts say that while the future of robotics is bright, there are still limits on what the technology can do.

"You can think of the robotic technologies that are coming as [ones] that are going to be able to supplement mine operations and certainly be able to work their way into rescue situations," said Chuck Whittaker, a field and test engineer for Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute.

Subterranean Robots Explore, Map Mines Inaccessible to Humans

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.

For example, Whittaker said, if a mining company needs to change tactics and re-route through an old, sealed mine, information gathered by robots could provide preliminary information about the way ahead.

"Mines are vast," he said. "For the people working there, they have a lot that has to get done. A good part of it has to do with managing safety and managing information about the mines as they're working."

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, Whittaker said, 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.

But while robotics might have several applications for the mining industry, he doubted humans would soon -- if ever -- be displaced.

"I think it'll be a long time before we see people displaced in mining situations," Whittaker said. Not only are humans needed to consider the many variables at play during mining, he said the economics aren't there to support fully automated mining.

Communicating Between Surface and Mine Is a Challenge

While coal is actively being mined, he said, the infrastructure constantly changes. At this point, humans are necessary to evaluate how to proceed in the face of soft floors, weak roofs and other challenges that emerge, he said.

Another obstacle to remote-controlled mining robots, is communicating through potentially hundreds of feet of rock.

Carol Raulston, senior vice president of communications for the National Mining Association, said that while the industry is introducing more and more computerized mechanisms that improve safety, the next steps likely involve both man and machine inside the mine.

"It's the same challenge we have in constantly communicating with miners that are deeply underground. You just can't do it with wireless technology because of the amount of rock that is between the control booth above ground and the equipment underground," she said.

She said there's currently no way to communicate between the mine and the surface wirelessly and other options aren't yet reliable enough to facilitate remote-controlled mining.

But Raulston said the industry has adopted other technologies to improve mine safety.

For example, she said, sensors attached to mining equipment monitor air quality for hazardous levels of methane, carbon monoxide and coal dust.

Mines Are Adopting Safety Technology, But in Early Stages

United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith said mines also use tracking equipment, which helps miners communicate with each other and potentially locates miners after accidents.

Since GPS technology doesn't work underground, some tracking systems rely on RFID (radio frequency identification) tags that transmit and receive messages to RFID-enabled devices in the vicinity.

But the adoption of advanced technology has been slow, he said.

According to a recent Associated Press report, the mining industry has yet to meet a 2006 congressional mandate to upgrade the country's underground mines with high-tech communications and tracking equipment.

Out of 491 mines expected to install the equipment, Mine Safety and Health Administration records show 34 mines that have systems that meet the requirements. The upgrades were mandated after a January 2006 methane explosion fatally trapped 12 West Virginia miners.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration did not immediately respond to requests for comment from

"There have been improvements in technology but those improvements are in the early stages," Smith said, adding that the industry is slowly adopting technology as it proves itself reliable. "We're not at the point where we can have complete confidence in that technology."

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