Topics: Drones, Autonomous Robot Lab, Mining Industry
Usually, drones are used by vloggers or cinematographers for an enhanced picturesque experience. However, drones now may also serve a lifesaving purpose, literally. For instance, Inside Edition recently reported a story of a young child who got lost after getting off the school bus. Despite more than 600 people and law enforcement officers searching on the ground for the boy, it was a heat-seeking drone spotted the child in a cornfield. However, the question is whether these drones can perform these actions in dangerous environments, for example, underground.
The Autonomous Robots Lab at the University of Nevada, Reno, is researching and enhancing drone abilities at the subterranean level. Professor of computer science & engineering, Dr. Kostas Alexis shares that they make 3D maps of underground mines for inspection purposes. They calculate how much volume there was progress inside the mine environment. These drones can be used for search and rescue in underground mines. It’s a mature technology, ready to be deployed, and doesn’t need a human pilot. As a result, the workers in the mines need not be drone experts; they have to use it as a tool that provides them with any information they want from the underground mine. Mine Safety and Health Administration reported over 3000 people working in the US mining industry. A coal dust mine explosion in Virginia killed 29 miners in 2010, making it one of the largest mine disasters in America. And last year, there were approximately 27 mining fatalities. Dr. Alexis shares that currently, these issues are resolved by sending trained people into the mine in the hope of finding those at possible risk. Using drones eliminates any chance of harming humans in rescue operations.
It is these unexpected and life-threatening situations that Dr. Alexis and his students at the Autonomous Robots Lab are preparing their drones for. They are testing the drones to perform the three key functions. First is localization mapping; in other words, having a drone know its environment. The second is the drone’s ability to navigate its surroundings, and the third is the ability to explore its area and find artifacts or people. Before taking it to the field, Dr. Alexis and his team test the drones in the Autonomous Robots Arena.
Graduate Research Assistant Frank Mascarish demonstrates the drone in the testing arena. He explains that the drone uses LiDAR to localize itself in the surroundings. In addition to localizing itself and exploring the environment, this drone is tasked with finding artifacts in a cave, tunnel, subway, or subterranean environment. Automating that process and removing the requirement of having a trained, certified pilot would drastically reduce costs and allow these drones to be deployed in many more scenarios. It’s a significant benefit to mining companies and miners themselves.
Safety is a big topic in the mining industry and has garnered much attention. UNR graduate student Simone Gaab is a mine engineering major who has created a virtual reality scenario to determine different evacuation methods in an underground emergency. Gaab believes that the work of the Autonomous Robots Lab will be of great use in the mining industry. Their final goal is to take people out of underground mines because they have an inherent danger. Ultimately, drones and the remote operation of the equipment will save people’s lives. The next step in Dr. Alexis and the Autonomous Robots Lab research is to have the drone function independently. In the future, he hopes to see these drones being used universally in all search and rescue operations.