Robots, Virtual Reality Touted as Mine-Safety Solutions

John Roach
for National Geographic News
January 27, 2006
Robots and virtual reality are being touted as 21st-century coal-mine canaries in the wake of this month's U.S. mining deaths.

In the 19th century, underground coal miners carried canaries down into the shafts as their first line of defense against poisonous gases. If the birds keeled over, the miners evacuated.

But the practice wasn't failsafe. Thousands of miners died each year.

Electronic gas sensors and portable oxygen supplies have long since replaced the canaries, but 22 U.S. coal miners still died on the job in 2005. Fourteen died this month alone. And in China that figure is in the thousands.

Can cutting edge technologies, from robotics to virtual reality training equipment, save more lives?

Several experts believe the answer is yes. They hope that the two disasters this month in Sago and Melville, West Virginia (state profile and map), spur mines to adopt high-tech safety technology.

"I think we are there now, to the point where [the momentum for adopting new safeguards] will not die out," said Larry Grayson, a professor of mining engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla.

"We'll get the problem taken care of this time."

On Monday the National Mining Association, an industry trade group, appointed Grayson the director of a commission to study how new technologies, procedures, and training can improve safety in underground mines.

Robotics Promise

William "Red" Whittaker, a robotics professor at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said he hopes the current outcry will lead to further use of robots.

"I know of no other single technology that holds as much promise to transform the capacity for mine response and rescue," Whittaker said.

Robots, he said, can go where humans dare not, or cannot, tread: potentially poisonous, smoky, and debris-strewn shafts.

For example, a robot equipped with gas sensors and video cameras can navigate one of these shafts and relay its findings. A robot could also squeeze down a narrow borehole and deliver emergency supplies to trapped miners.

Despite robots' promise, they "are not certified, are not deployed, are not standard tools of the mine rescue," Whittaker said.

To get to that point, he says, governments, the mining industry, and engineers would have to commit to the idea that robots should be an essential part of the miner's tool kit.

Robots will never be a magic solution to mine-disaster response and rescue, Whittaker says. But he predicts that they will someday be as common in the mining industry as they are today in automobile assembly and space exploration.

Rescue Toolkit

According to Grayson, the mining-engineering professor, several other technologies, once proven reliable, should become mandatory components of mine safety.

For example, he said, mines should include radio communication systems based on "leaky feeder" technology.

Some widely used communication systems using ultra low frequency radio waves can penetrate rock to varying depths.

In general, though, radio waves cannot penetrate rock sufficiently and reliably enough for people to speak to each other. (Think of your car radio going staticky in a tunnel.)

Installed throughout a mine, leaky-feeder cables can overcome this problem. The cables "leak" signal, which allows two-way communication.

As long as the cables are "hardened up" to withstand an explosion or collapse, Grayson says, they should greatly increase the odds that trapped miners would be able to talk to rescue teams.

Another simple technology mines should embrace is minewide gas sensors and pressure sensors, Grayson says.

Many mines have gas sensors and some other sensors, at least in main tunnels. But the devices should be deployed more widely, Grayson says.

Sensors placed throughout a mine at strategic locations and tied into a communication system can alert more people to the accumulation of hazardous gases, an impending roof collapse, or a compromised ventilation system in time to evacuate.

Other technologies include ropes that emit a low-level light that allow people to find their way in dark caverns clouded with smoke.

In addition, mine complexes should have sturdy, airtight, strategically placed rooms stocked with oxygen, food, water, and carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide absorbents, Grayson says. Such havens would give trapped miners safe places to wait for rescue teams.

U.S. mining laws do not currently mandate these technologies and protections. They are therefore not widely adopted by mine companies, especially smaller ones, he says.

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is another fast-developing technology that might increase mine safety, Grayson said.

Some programs teach miners what to do in a disaster, and several companies are developing software that allows miners to learn how to safely operate heavy and expensive equipment.

5DT (Fifth Dimension Technologies) of Irvine, California, for example, has developed packages that train operators on tricky mining machinery.

The company's Long Wall Training Simulator, for example, is designed to help train miners in operating massive shearers that scrape away at mine faces and deposit coal onto conveyor belts.

The simulator involves a headset an integrated video monitor and a remote control of the sort used to manipulate the machinery. Thanks to head-tracking technology, when trainees turn their heads left, for instance, the video displays create the illusion that they are seeing what would be on their left in the mine.

While these simulators are designed primarily to reduce and enhance training time spent on the real machinery, they also include what-if training scenarios, says Jared Baer, the company's chief operating officer.

"One of the things you want to teach [miners] is what to do if gas is detected. … ," Baer said. "What are the proper safety procedures they should follow? Or what procedures should they follow if a rib [supporting a shaft's ceiling] collapses?"

The systems, which sell for U.S $70,000 and up, are becoming more widespread, especially as early-stage training tools, Baer said.

For example, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System recently purchased 18 of 5DT's simulators.

Grayson, the professor, cautions that, as promising as these technologies are, people must know how to use them properly.

"Ultimately, behind every technology that evolves and is adopted in the workplace, it still takes people to maintain it, to use it properly, make sure it stays in proper calibration, and interpret it," he said.

"Humans have to make the decisions."

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