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CMU tries out new mine-mapping robot

'Groundhog' debuts near Burgettstown

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

By Byron Spice, Post-Gazette Science Editor

A four-wheeled robot named Groundhog ventured for the first time into an abandoned coal mine near Burgettstown on Sunday afternoon, slogging through deep orange muck as it used laser rangefinders to produce a map of the old mine workings.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute plan to send the ATV-sized robot back into the mine this morning so they can set up a video link between the robot and the Charleston, W.Va., Civic Center, where the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is hosting a technical meeting on mine mapping.

Online Graphic:
Unmanned Ground Combat Vehicle



Coming just 60 days after the Robotics Institute launched its mine mapping project, the experiment in Burgettstown is providing researchers with their first experience inside an abandoned mine while simultaneously demonstrating to skeptical mining officials that robots can operate inside old mines and produce new, accurate maps that might prevent a repeat of the Quecreek Mine accident in Somerset County.

Nine miners were trapped for three days in July when they mistakenly breached the adjoining Saxman Mine, an accident that has been blamed on inaccurate maps of the abandoned mine.

William "Red" Whittaker, who is directing the Carnegie Mellon project, said he was pleased with Groundhog's initial performance Sunday. About 100 feet of the tunnel was mapped, though adjustments will need to be made to the machine, including relocating a headlight that was immersed in the thick orange slime coating the tunnel floor.

"Nobody goes into abandoned mines," he explained, "so there's no way to know what to expect."

Sunday's test was in the former Florence Mine, which hasn't operated since the 1920s. Until it was intentionally breached last week by strip miners, this portion of the mine likely had been underwater for nearly 80 years. Several days of pumping caused the water to recede enough for the wheeled robot to enter, but the tunnel floor was coated with a thick layer of acidic sludge, colored bright orange by its iron content.

The hourlong test turned the tale of Cinderella on its head -- Groundhog was a blue-and-gray carriage when it entered the mine and emerged looking like a pumpkin, with orange goo clinging to its body and tires.

"I was surprised by how much mud we saw," said Scott Thayer, a systems scientist. "But we're pleased by the way it tore into the mud."

"I never would have believed in its maiden voyage that we would have seen mud up to the floor plates," Whittaker agreed. The vehicle was designed with a foot of ground clearance, based in part on conditions in the Saxman Mine as reported by investigators of the Quecreek accident.

But the flow of 50 million gallons of water into the Quecreek Mine no doubt scoured away much of the muck that had been on the Saxman Mine floor.

"That's a pretty hostile environment in there," said Sean Taylor, president of Mulligan Mining, which is strip mining the old Florence Mine site. "The Saxman would have looked a lot like this, prior to the breach."

The Mulligan Mining site is on Bavington Road across from Burgettstown High School. The company is recovering coal, where possible, from the parts of the 5 1/2 foot-thick Pittsburgh seam that were left behind by the underground miners. In other areas, the company is sealing off the old mine workings with clay and lime. The abandoned mine extends south of the Mulligan site, under and beyond the high school.

The Carnegie Mellon researchers are focusing on two devices -- the wheeled Groundhog, which can enter dry mines or mines that have been pumped out, and a mapping device that can be lowered down a borehole into an inundated mine. This second device can't move for now, but can map the area around the borehole.

From here on, however, Whittaker said he's convinced that future devices should be totally amphibious, swimming robots because most abandoned mines in Pennsylvania are filled with water.

Though Taylor acknowledged that robots are still years away from use, he said he can see commercial applications. Operations such as his own could benefit from having accurate maps of old workings so the amount of remaining coal could be precisely calculated.

And if a robot can draw a map of underground mines, it might also be equipped with mining equipment to recover coal from abandoned mines too deep to be surface-mined, Taylor said. "There's a lot of coal that's been left behind" in old underground mines, but can't be safely recovered by human miners. "There's a lot of properties around like" the Florence Mine.

Thayer, co-instructor of the Carnegie Mellon class that is developing the robot, said the satellite link planned today between Burgettstown and Charleston will carry live video from the robot, from a pair of video cameras looking into the tunnel and video of computer monitors displaying the map the robot is drawing.

Byron Spice can be reached at bspice@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.

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