Pike River NZ mine robot reconnaissance hits snag

Robot breaks down at mine entrance

A military robot sent into the collapsed Pike River mine on New Zealand’s West Coast to survey conditions for the 29 trapped miners has broken down, mine officials have said.

The miners, who include two Australians, 24 New Zealanders, two Britons and one South African, have been trapped since 19 November

The robot carried four cameras and was intended to return images to engineers of the mine's interior as well as capture details of a trapped loader that is blocking an access path.

According to officials, the robot had stalled a short distance into the mine.

Texas A&M University Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, Robin Murphy, said in a statement that it is always a long shot to use any robot for a situation that it's not designed for.

“We are still learning about what is needed for underground mine rescue," she said. "The environment is tough. It’s dark, wet and cold so even on a level floor that would be easy for a person to walk on a regular robot can quickly short out, get its sensors covered in muck, mechanically seize up, or the operator make a mistake."

New Zealand Police Superintendent, Gary Knowles, said the military robot will no longer be used. More advanced robots are being sourced from the United States and Western Australia.

Murphy said there have been no lives saved using robots.

“Various robots have been helpful in establishing environmental conditions to help the rescuers decide how to safely proceed or to search places that rescuers couldn't go," she said.

Murphy added that there is only one robot designed specifically for mine rescue, the Inuktun Mine Crawler which was used in a mine collapse in Utah.

University of Arizona department of Mining and Geological Engineering Associate Professor, Dr. Sean Dessureault, said in a statement that mobility is a major issue for robots due to their need to be connected by wire.

“Standard wireless technology does not work underground after an accident and wireless does not have sufficient bandwidth to transmit telemetry.”

Another limitation for the use of robots is potentially explosive gases that build up in some underground coal mines, as well as the suspended coal in the air.

“Robots are electric and hence through heat or even tiny sparks or static electric build-up, can cause secondary explosions,” he said.

Follow Hamish Barwick on Twitter: @HamishBarwick

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAu

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