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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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"
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.
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.