By Mark S. Kuhar
How do you use drones and robots to make underground mining less risky for workers?
Virginia Tech researcher Richard Bishop and his West Virginia University collaborators are working to answer this question. A recent two-year, $569,149 Alpha Foundation grant will allow the team to study ways to use autonomous drones to predict and prevent roof collapses underground.
It’s urgent work. Since 2006, about 40% of deaths in underground stone mines in the United States have been linked to collapsed roofs and rock pillars. In fact, four major collapses have occurred in older sections of mines since 2020. What’s more, there exists no definitive way to predict these structural failures.
“We hope that by bringing our research together, we can make faster progress in this critically important area of mine safety,” Bishop said.
The project aims to develop a database of mine layouts, rock mass characteristics, and high-resolution 3D maps of stone mine pillars and roofs; refine the techniques and equipment used to gather similar data; and use the database to develop guidelines for recognizing hazards that lead to pillar and roof collapses.
Bishop, who is an alumnus of the Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering, previously worked on a research project funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that used laser scanning and a photographic technique known as photogrammetry to generate 3D maps to help study the structural integrity of underground stone mines.
In that project, Bishop demonstrated the effectiveness of using various sensors to fly drones in GPS-denied environments and onboard LED lighting systems, built in-house, to allow drones in the absolute darkness of an underground mine to capture high-quality digital photos. Those photos were used to calculate critical measurements to evaluate the safety of mine structures.
West Virginia University researchers have developed a robotic mapping system that uses autonomous ground and aerial vehicles to map underground mines. Bringing these two approaches together could develop better ways to inspect mine structures and predict safety threats.
Drones have become an essential part of surface mine operations to boost safety and efficiency. Bishop sees a day when that will be true for underground operations, too, and that could have broad impacts on safety and economic growth. The global stone mining and quarrying market alone is expected to grow from about $8 billion in 2020 to more than $11 billion by 2025, Business Wire recently reported.
That growth also provides opportunities for today’s mining students that the College of Engineering wants to help them seize.
“All our mining engineering students now and in the future will have opportunities to learn and practice using autonomous technologies for a range of applications,” Interim Department Head Erik Westman said. “We currently have a near 100% job placement rate for our graduates. We want to ensure our degree program stays on the cutting edge of mining and remains a great financial investment for students and their families.”
Westman oversees the department’s new Center for Autonomous Mining, aka VT Mock Mine, in the recently remodeled Holden Hall. The first-of-its-kind lab-scale facility features three open pits that can be filled with various minerals and space soil simulants. There, students build and operate autonomous digging and hauling vehicles for classes and competition teams. Bishop also teaches students to build and fly small drones in the facility, and Westman plans to develop research initiatives that would include industry partners.
“Our undergraduate program is focusing on providing training in data analytics and programming to help our graduates and industry partners leverage the financial and environmental efficiencies possible now and in the future,” Westman said.
This focus on education and hands-on experience with autonomous technologies will not only make mining engineering graduates more sought after by employers, it will give them the tools to make important contributions to the safety and sustainability of mining worldwide.