Coal Mining: Could Robots Do Humans' Dirty Work?

Could robotic technology replace humans in coal mines?

ByABC News
April 6, 2010, 5:42 PM

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.

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."