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CMU's Ferret robot comes up a success

Sunday, January 26, 2003

By Byron Spice, Post-Gazette Science Editor

The robotics work begun at Carnegie Mellon University after the Quecreek coal mine accident is bearing fruit far from home.

Ferret, a robotic device built at Carnegie Mellon, was successfully deployed the week of Jan. 12 in Kansas City, Kan., where it produced three-dimensional maps of four underground voids that have undermined a busy residential street.

The device was lowered through 10-inch-diameter boreholes to examine the voids created by a "dome-out," the collapse of the roof of an old limestone mine. Sonar sensors were used to map one chamber that was inundated with groundwater, while laser range finders produced maps of three dry or partially flooded chambers.

"They are remarkable images, showing pillars and mine rooms quite clearly," said Bill Shefchik, a geologist with Burns & McDonnell, an engineering consulting firm. "It allows one to actually obtain measurements of the void."

Burns & McDonnell is consulting on a project to backfill the dome-out with fly ash concrete, which will take a couple of years but will allow the street above to be reopened to traffic.

Previously, video cameras were the only way engineers could assess the underground voids, Shefchik added, and those cameras couldn't produce the measurements possible with the 3-D maps.

Ferret is one of several robots developed by the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute since last summer's Quecreek Mine accident, which trapped nine miners for three days when they mistakenly breached an abandoned mine filled with water. Noted roboticist William "Red" Whittaker said he believed robots can be developed to remotely map mines, particularly abandoned mines for which no reliable maps are available.

Ferret is a cylindrical device that can be lowered down a borehole to a mine or other void, where it can extend its arms to anchor itself to the borehole walls. Sonar or laser range finders attached to Ferret's bottom can then scan the open space and produce detailed maps.

Aaron Morris, a graduate student who did much of the work on Ferret, and Chuck Whittaker, a mining engineer and Red's brother, took two robots with them to Kansas -- Ferret and a new robot assembled over the holidays by Chuck and Red Whittaker called Buoybot.

Buoybot, as the name implies, is a capsule-shaped, floating robot. Scott Thayer, a systems scientist who developed Ferret along with Morris and Red Whittaker, said a floating robot equipped with lasers and sonar could produce maps of partially flooded mines.

Many mines in southwestern Pennsylvania are inundated with groundwater and, as the Carnegie Mellon researchers discovered during a field test this fall, have thick layers of muck that make it difficult to operate wheeled robots even if the mine is pumped out. A Buoybot is simpler to build than a robotic submarine and might be used to map inundated mines if they could be partially pumped out, Thayer said.

Buoybot could not be used in Kansas City, he noted, because in the one partially flooded chamber examined, the water was not deep enough to accommodate the robot.

Shefchik said Burns & McDonnell plans to hire the Carnegie Mellon roboticists for another task later this year -- mapping chambers within underground salt beds that have been used to store natural gas. Gas leaking from the caverns caused explosions and fires last year in Hutchinson, Kan.

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

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