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Robots Take Human Factor Out of Mining
11/16/2012

Robotic innovations like Rail-Veyor's conveyor system for hauling materials in and out of mines are taking some of the human factor out of mining, making it more efficient and safe for workers.   (Source: Rail-Veyor Technologies)
Robotic innovations like Rail-Veyor's conveyor system for hauling materials in and out of mines are taking some of the human factor out of mining, making it more efficient and safe for workers.
(Source: Rail-Veyor Technologies)

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TJ McDermott
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Is this a robot?
TJ McDermott   11/16/2012 11:15:47 AM
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Elizabeth, the railveyor system sounds more like industrial automation than robotics.  What in this system leads us to see it as a robot?

Elizabeth M
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Re: Is this a robot?
Elizabeth M   11/16/2012 11:56:07 AM
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Sorry, TJ, I'm not sure I understand your question...? Can you clarify? Thanks!

TJ McDermott
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Re: Is this a robot?
TJ McDermott   11/16/2012 12:57:36 PM
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Elizabeth, what I'm asking (about the rail-veyor system specifically) is, is it a "robot"?  It sounds like a car moves along a rail, and some conveyor belts.  That sounds more like industrial automation.

For example, a smart belt conveyor system detects products that arrive at random times and by accelerating / decelerating adjusts the a single product at a time so as to evenly space them, or deliver them to a flighted conveyor between the flights instead of on them.

Would you call such a system a "robot"?  To me, that's industrial automation.  The rail-veyor system would appear to be more like simple industrial automation rather than robotics.

Is a series of 4 pneumatic actuators and detection sensors programmed to push the products into 4 different totes based on bar code (or color, or size, or weight, etc.) as they come down a conveyor system a robot?

I would say that is simple industrial automation as well.

But take an mechanical arm, driven by a number of servo motors, provide a camera and program that arm to pick up each product and place it in the appropriate tote based on the camera input; that system I would call a robot.

A vehicle (air, land or sea) that can autonomously navigate and adjust its course based on its perception of the environment is also called a robot according to other articles here in Design News.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Is this a robot?
Ann R. Thryft   11/19/2012 12:32:12 PM
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TJ, thanks for a clear summary of the components of a robotic system. If this system, or parts of it, are self-driving for example, as Elizabeth's comment states, or partially autonomous in another way, then the label probably applies.(Total robot autonomy does not yet exist, except in fiction).

Ann R. Thryft
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Where are the robots?
Ann R. Thryft   11/16/2012 12:16:44 PM
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As we've discussed in other DN articles and lots of comment threads, such as here http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1386&doc_id=250357&piddl_msgpage=2#msgs the standard definition of a robot is an electromechanical (or mechatronic) device that works automatically. But many people assume, perhaps from science fiction movies and/or remote-controlled toys, that robots are machines that can function separately and independently of a large automation system such as are found in industrial automation Some even think a robot must be intelligent and/or autonomous. The lines are somewhat fuzzy, and as technology changes so are the definitions. That said, the conveyor system in the photo looks like a standard industrial automation conveyor system, so I guess I'm also wondering: where are the robots?

TJ McDermott
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Re: Where are the robots?
TJ McDermott   11/16/2012 1:03:40 PM
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Exactly Ann.  Is an automated conveyor system (even one with intelligence to deliver different things to different places) considered a robot?

If that's the case, then the package handling system used by UPS in its sorting centers is a robot.

Taking that stance diffuses the concept of robot to worthlessness.

The concept of robot should embrace some form of flexibility, adapability, autonomity.

Cabe Atwell
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Re: Where are the robots?
Cabe Atwell   11/16/2012 4:09:48 PM
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From working to saving lives, seems like these robots are doing some good. The mining industry is possibly the worst for human workers. Being trapped in a collapsed mine is least painful danger they face. So any little help will save lives.

I like how bots are now the ones on the dangerous end of jobs. Take the military bomb defusing bots, they have saved countless lives. Or the legion of bots deployed at the Fukushima disaster site. In this case, it is 2012, humans should not be at risk deep under the earth. (I would say, we shouldn't be there at all. But even now, coal mining employs a lot of people. Where would they go otherwise?)

 

C

mrdon
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Re: Where are the robots?
mrdon   11/16/2012 8:32:54 PM
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Ann, I agree. As I was reading the article and didn't get the since of robots performing mining operations but Industrial Automation being at work. Industrial Equipment Manufacturers need to be careful in using the word "robot" in their advertisment. It's quite easy to mislead the potential customer into thinking their buying a certain piece of machinery when they're not.

Elizabeth M
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Re: Where are the robots?
Elizabeth M   11/19/2012 8:34:32 AM
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It is my understanding that the conveyor system goes beyond mere automation and acts in the same way as other "robotic" cars and self-driving systems, so ventures slightly beyond normal conveyor systems into the world of robotics. But perhaps it's a gray area, and your points about it being more automation what is considered robotics are well taken.

3drob
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Re: Where are the robots?
3drob   11/19/2012 9:33:58 AM
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My definition of "robot" includes mobility in non-preset ways (i.e. the generic ability to handle new situations without being "reconstructed").  It doesn't imply un-attended operation (that would make it an automaton), only the ability to remotely control it. 

Conveyer belts are set up with specific source/destination points, so although it moves things intelligently, it moves those things only to the pre-set locations.  Handling new situations (e.g. a new tunnel) requires "reconstruction" to add new tracks.  Unattended yes, but not a robot.

I never thought of it 'till now, but standard (available for decades) mining equipment (hydrolic diggers)  classify as robots more correctly than this article's subject.  They are machines/vehicles that translate user direction at a remotable control panel to mechanical operation at the digging point.

Perhaps the article on the rail-veyor product left out pertinant info?  The rescue robots are (I think) more clearly "robots".

mrdon
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Re: Where are the robots?
mrdon   11/19/2012 11:44:04 AM
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3drob, I agree. There's a fine line between automation and robotics. Some of the roboticists purest argue that a robot must be autonomous with no human interaction. Also, automation falls in the domain of autonomous and that the system describe would be considered a robot. These conversations are quite intriguing and I'll keep reading these articles about the subject to see the tech communities' conclusion.

William K.
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Robots doing mine work
William K.   11/19/2012 2:54:42 PM
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Is it robot or automatron? The big question is can it tell ore from just plain rock? Making judgement calls is sort of important in many instances, mining may be one of them. Automation and robots can do a lot, but the judgement calls are where the humans can usually win. Of course it may be possible for robots to learn the rules for that, as well.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Robots doing mine work
Ann R. Thryft   11/20/2012 11:47:16 AM
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That would be one very sophisticated robot that could tell ores apart. It would need a lot of intellgence, processing power, sophisticated algorithms and perhaps AI, plus very good image recognition software and would no doubt have to learn some geology, or at least be taught how to recognize the different types of ores.

William K.
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Re: Robots doing mine work
William K.   11/20/2012 12:17:58 PM
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Ann, that is exactly my point! A robotic miner can go through the motions and do a good job of collecting materials, but the judgement will not be there. Of course in some instances there will not be much need for judgement, such as when the material to be minede is not located in veins, but rather a braod band. And undoubtedly there are mines where the gains in safety far exceed the losses in efficiency. Probably there are also gains to be made by never sending humans in and therefore never needing to follow the same safety regulations. I suspect that there are not very many laws regarding the protection of automation equipment from disasters. The primary concerns would be economic instead of humanitarian. But that sort of thing could put human miners out of work. So there is a "social cost"

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Robots doing mine work
Ann R. Thryft   11/27/2012 12:51:32 PM
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Mining is a very old human endeavor (a few thousand years old) with, as Dennis points out, very high risks. The number of deaths that have resulted must be huge. Like military robots which can go where people can't, or where operations are too dangerous such as disarming IEDs, I can easily envision similar robots with similar skillsets/features for at least some mining operations.

Jack Rupert, PE
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Re: Robots doing mine work
Jack Rupert, PE   11/30/2012 5:20:34 PM
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It isn't only the safety issue that drives the need for robotics in the mining industry.  I used to work in the industry for a number of years and another disadvantage is that the minerals are in the middle of nowhere.  (Actually, you fly into the middle of nowhere and then drive another 100 miles).  The personnel costs are astronomical because the miners have to be located at the site and their families are elsewhere.  In some instances, even infrastructure (such as water systems) need to be brought out to the mine, so the less people actually there, significant reduce the costs.

Bunter
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Mining safety
Bunter   11/26/2012 8:51:58 AM
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I work for a company that builds underground mining vehicles.  Recently I had a week long class on mining safety that left me with a profound respect for the dangers involved in this profession (Coal mines are really nasty-opinion).

The more automation that can remove people from these high risk positions is OK by me.

 

Dennis

Elizabeth M
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Re: Mining safety
Elizabeth M   11/26/2012 1:44:48 PM
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Thanks for your input, Dennis. It's always nice to hear from people who are working directly in an industry and have first hand knowledge of how more automation and robots will affect the actual work environment they're entering.

William K.
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Mining is dangerous
William K.   11/27/2012 9:03:12 PM
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Mining is much more dangerous in countries like China, where, if the report is correct, 1700 miners have been killed in mines so far this year. We seldom hear about that, mostly because the government would be embarrased if the truth got out. Probably the robot miners are too expensive for those mines to consider. That is what comes from putting a cheap price on human life. How else would you explain it?

Probably the best result would come from a totally new technology and a different means for recovering the energy from coal, instead of mining it and bringing it out in coal, cars. So we need others to consider some alternative ways to recover the energy. That could make somebody a real hero if they find a way.

ChasChas
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Robot?
ChasChas   11/28/2012 6:19:27 PM
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Wiki says:

robot is a mechanical or virtual artificial agent, usually an electro-mechanical machine that is guided by a computer program or electronic circuitry.

Yes Elizabeth, this is a robot.

Arioda
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Other ways to address this issue
Arioda   11/29/2012 8:54:43 AM
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This is an excellent example of cleverly applying expensive technology to a problem that begs for a completely different solution.  Put the miners to work doing something else entirely like solar panel assembly taking care that they are protected against work hazards like chemical exposure etc.   The robot might be better applied to mining other materials too and in a way that leaves the area fit for other uses.  Coal is dirty and attempts to process and burn it cleanly have failed utterly with no solutions anywhere on the horizon.  Moreover it is unnecessary.  The human and environmental damage done already is enormous.  This is not a political issue, it is an ethical matter. Engineers and engineering product companies have a large responsibility to create truely useful and helpful products.

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