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Robot That Probes Underground Hazards
April 25, 2013   
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Leszek Kasprzyczak, Ph.D., from the Research and Development Department at the EMAG Institute of Innovative Technology in the southern city of Katowice, talks to Karolina Olszewska.

You coordinated a project that aimed to develop a mobile inspection robot designed for use in coal mines where there is a risk of explosion hazards. What’s the outcome of the project?

The project ended in November 2010 with the designing of a non-commercial prototype version of the Mine Mobile Inspection Robot. We began working on the project in 2008 together with the Industrial Research Institute for Automation and Measurements (PIAP) in Warsaw, which designed the mechanical systems for the robot, while we designed the electronic systems.

Where did the idea of building such a device come from?

In coal mines, there are cases of endogenous fires, which means fires caused by spontaneous combustion of coal as a result of accumulation of heat from coal oxidation. It often happens that there is no open flame, but the coal is smoldering in a way invisible to the eye. Such fires are hard to detect and control, as a result of which there are dangerous levels of toxic carbon monoxide and of carbon dioxide, which may cause suffocation.

Only measuring equipment in mines can detect that carbon monoxide and dioxide concentration has exceeded the safe level. Then the whole area affected by the fire has to be closed and isolated from other parts of the mine. For this purpose, special anti-explosion barriers are built, which means the excavation area is simply walled off in order to cut off the supply of fresh air with oxygen. Most often nitrogen is also pumped in to accelerate the process of putting out the fire, which can take up to six months. All this time, expensive equipment such as mining combines and conveyor belts are stuck in there. These long periods of stoppage put mines at risk of huge financial losses that run into millions of zlotys. And that’s not only because all this equipment is not in use. Each day of stoppage means a loss of output for the mine in terms of coal not excavated. If a mine produces 10,000 metric tons of coal a day, for example, and if a ton of coal costs zl.500, then the daily loss is zl.5 million.

How can your mobile robots help reduce these losses?

It is only these that can enter the hazardous area and take the necessary measurements. If the amount of toxic gases is accumulating at a slower rate, this means that the fire is out and it is possible to resume production. So far, it has been the task of mine rescuers to take such measurements. But it is easy to imagine just how dangerous such missions are. Even if the rescuers wear special masks to protect them against intoxication, they are taking a huge risk, which includes high temperature, narrow and low galleries, as well as potential explosions. It is far better to send in a robot capable of evaluating the area and measuring the concentration of dangerous gases. What’s more, the robot will be able to not only replace humans in such situations, but also do much more than the best-equipped human specialist. While people can’t venture far into the hazardous area, the robot is capable of making its way up to one kilometer into the excavation. It can work in temperatures of 60 degrees Celsius. It is equipped with devices that make it possible to take measurements, including of methane, temperature and humidity. The robot sends all this data to the operation command team.

When using the traditional method involving human rescuers, such information is almost never transmitted from the area near the coal face. This makes the information less credible. It sometimes happens that the fire has long been extinguished, but the measurements suggest something different. Thanks to the robot, it is possible to decide faster and more accurately whether to resume work in the closed area or whether it is necessary to continue on with the firefighting operation. If this brings forward the date of reopening the excavation area by a few weeks or even months, it’s easy to imagine just how much the mine would profit from that.

Are there similar devices already in use in other countries?

This is the world’s first mobile robot of its kind designed to work under such extreme conditions. It is fully adapted to the conditions in Polish coal mines. Similar robots have been built in Australia, the United States and China. However, coal mining is different in each part of the world. Moreover, each country has its own safety standards. Being in Europe, we have to abide by EU directives and standards harmonized with these directives. We must take these regulations into account while designing every new device. And I don’t mean just the formalities but also mobile robot functions. In Australia, some of the deposits are very shallow, so surface mining methods are used, while in Poland underground mining is employed. That’s why our robot has unique functions.

Specifically, what kind of unique abilities does your robot have?

The robot is powered by compressed nitrogen from a cylinder placed on a platform. It weighs 200 kilograms, but it’s controlled by means of a joystick from a shock- and heat-resistant personal computer and using specially designed software. Vision, control and measuring signals are transmitted by cables. The robot has a three-axis, independently suspended set of wheels aided by three legs. Thanks to this, the robot is capable of moving both on flat terrain and along surfaces inclined by up to 30 degrees. It can overcome obstacles with a limited height such as thresholds, rail tracks or water. The robot is adapted to work at very high temperatures and in areas at risk of methane or coal dust explosion in underground mining facilities.

Has any Polish coal mine used the robot yet?

The prototype has passed electromagnetic compatibility tests performed in an accredited EMAG lab. The robot conforms with the ATEX directive and meets the requirements in terms of explosion hazards. However, that doesn’t mean the robot is ready to work in mines. The project has resulted in the development of a technology demonstrator. It’s always the case that a research projects ends with a prototype that doesn’t generate any financial profits. The technology can then be bought by a private company that can start production. It is not until then that the finished product can be sold to customers.

That doesn’t mean, though, that the prototype is going to end up on the shelf. It has been tested by mine rescuers from the Central Mine Rescue Station, who tried it out at the Bobrek-Centrum coal mine in the southern Polish city of Bytom at a depth of 726 meters. That’s how we found out about the strengths and drawbacks of our device. Now, in another project, we are improving it. For instance, we are trying to replace the pneumatic drive system with a more efficient electric drive. That should enable the robot to overcome more difficult obstacles and increase its range. However, that is not easy due to the lack of low-capacity electric motors designed for use in coal mines.

What do scientists think of your prototype?

The robot was singled out for praise at the Paris International Invention Exhibition in 2011. What’s more, the team which carried out the project received a special diploma from Poland’s science and higher education minister, Barbara Kudrycka. We have published the results of our research in both Polish and foreign magazines.

The robot will cost around zl.600,000. The project has been co-financed to the tune of zl.3.56 million by the National Center for Research and Development.
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