Robots Take Human Factor Out of Mining

More and more robots are making a variety of tasks and operations -- such as factory work, picking crops, and even noodle making -- more efficient, and mining is no exception.

Engineers have developed robots to take the human factor out of mining work and provide automation in the process, which not only makes it more efficient, but also less dangerous for the people involved. They also are developing robots that can greatly assist in efforts to rescue trapped miners, making this task also safer for those performing the rescue efforts.

The Copper Cliff Mine 114 Orebody in Sudbury, Ontario, is using a robotic conveyor system to haul materials in and out of mines developed by Rail-Veyor Technologies Global. The Brazilian company that owns the mine, Vale, has been testing and installing the system for about two years and it's now fully operational. "This investment allows us to test new and innovative mining technologies that could dramatically improve mining processes across our operations," said Alex Henderson, a Vale general manager, in a press release.

The system is compact, consisting of a dump truck-like vessel and a conveyor belt with a light rail track that is one third of the weight of an average rail -- 40 pounds versus the typical 120-pound rail, according to the company. This compact design also allows the conveyor system to fit in small places in a mine, such as under bridges and tunnels, where it can clear obstacles. This reduces the cost of underground development of the mine, according to Rail-Veyor.

Rail-Veyor's system is also nimble, traveling at grades up to 20 percent, with a turning radius of 30m. This also makes it more agile to travel in tight spaces, allowing it to go deep into mines where it may be dangerous for humans. GPS and sensor technologies can run the system automatically, though operators above the ground also can monitor it remotely, according to Rail-Veyor.

While Rail-Veyor's system can make typical mine operations more efficient, another company -- Penguin Automated Systems Inc. (ASI) -- has built a robot called the Recon Robot System that can be used in rescue operations in case of a mine collapse or other disaster-type situation. The robots, which mine administrators also can use to evaluate and determine the stability of a mine, can be deployed for rescue operations in case part of the mine caves in and possibly traps miners.

Rescuers can deploy two robots weighing 1,500 pounds each, one to navigate and perform rescue tasks -- such as removing debris out of the path to the surface -- and another as a communications hub to establish contact with operators above ground.

The robot performing work has a navigation system and a boom with an HD camera attached to collect images from the mine, which the robot in charge of communications can receive signals from operators above ground and relay them to the worker robot, according to Penguin ASI.

All told, the robots each have four cameras and batteries that provide 12 hours of life, or six if the robots work at a 45-degree angle, according to Penguin. The company has designed the wheels of the robots -- of which there are eight arranged in pairs -- to allow them to move over debris and large pieces of rock in a mine, or to be fitted with track if appropriate.

Penguin's robots are currently being deployed in a mine in Chile and also have been used to help in recovery efforts when a mall roof collapsed in Elliot Lake, Ontario, earlier this year.

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