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There are two major challenges facing modern mining. The first is that although other industries have taken leaps forward in terms of worker health and safety, mining has been left behind in that human workers in mines are still confronted with major health and safety risks.
Fires, falling rocks, the risk of becoming trapped beneath the ground are some of the most severe dangers, but workers also face danger from coal, noise, whole-body vibration (WBV), UV exposure, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), thermal stress and chemical hazards. In addition, the second challenge is that the industry is under pressure to source greater quantities of the precious metals necessary for technology, such as for smartphones and televisions, and even for tech used in renewable energy.
Role of Robots in Mining
Robots are providing a solution to both of these challenges. They’re removing the danger to humans by taking their place in the situations posing most risk, further to this, the development of cutting edge robotic technology is allowing the industry to grow and is opening up the opportunity of mining in space, the ocean floor, and reopening old mines, in order to access the materials we desperately need.
Mine mapping is one of the most crucial elements of the mining sector. Information on the geography underground is essential to predicting mine subsidence and enhancing the safety of those working down there. Even with developments in technology, accidents are still occurring where better mine maps would have prevented disaster. Robots are better positioned to take on this job, rather than jeopardizing the lives of humans, so scientists are currently developing methods using robots to gain thorough and extensive mine maps.
The first of these was the ‘Groundhog’ robot, created back in 2003, which successfully mapped abandoned coal mines. Further developments have equipped robots with the capabilities to measure temperature, humidity, air velocity, and radioactivity, georeferencing all measurements within a generated map.
Another key competence of the robots that are being developed to work underground is to explore flooded mines. In Europe alone there are 8,500 mines that have been abandoned or closed down that are currently flooded. With advancements in technology, the minerals we are now seeing a high demand for are different from those of decades before. In order to meet this growing demand, robots are being used to survey these old, flooded mines in order to discover if they are sources of the materials we need. In addition to identifying which mines may be beneficial to reopen, robots have been developed to open up these sites. The ¡VAMOS! (Viable Alternative Mine Operating System) is an example of a program testing the capabilities of robots in extracted ore underwater.
For those mines that are already open and functional, robotics have been used to create self-driving ore-carrying vehicles. Huge, self-driving trucks work around the clock to retrieve the excavated material, eliminating the need to put human workers at risk. The vehicles use laser scanners and radar to navigate narrow underground tunnels with ease, which would be difficult for human drivers to tackle.
In order to access the minerals within the underground rock, conventional mining would have human workers breaking up the rocking by drilling holes into it and inserting explosives. This dangerous task can now be passed onto robotic drills which can do the job more accurately, removing the risk to human lives.
Finally, for those jobs which still require a human presence, engineers have come up with robotic assistants to work alongside them to provide aspects of strength and precision, leaving human team members to be responsible for decision making.
The era of robot use underground is only just beginning; many of its applications to the mining industry are still being developed. In the future, we can expect more innovations in this field to continue to improve safety, efficiency, and productivity in the mining industry.