“We’ve just started researching ways in which mobile robots could be used in mining,” says Prof. Bernhard Jung from the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science at TU Bergakademie Freiberg – the University of Resources. “After all, the research mine here in Freiberg has been a hub of innovation for mining technology for decades,” he adds. The robot, which will eventually move around the research mine on its own, comes from the Upper Palatinate region of Germany. It is called Innok Heros and was developed and built by young engineers at Innok Robotics, a startup company based in Münchsried in the district of Regensburg.
The Mining RoX project, which is part of the Robots in saXony (RoX) initiative, focuses on using intelligent service robots in mining. Over the next two years, the project aims to equip mobile robots in a way that they can produce accurate 3D maps of mines and autonomously collect data on ambient conditions such as air and water quality. By providing reliable monitoring, the robots will increase occupational safety and reduce costs.
To achieve this, the engineers at Innok Robotics developed a vehicle that can cope with conditions in a mine down to a depth of 150 m. “That was our biggest challenge. The humidity underground is extreme. Water drips from the ceiling and you also get acids forming. The robot has to be able to withstand that,” says Alwin Heerklotz, managing director of Innok Robotics. The engineers had to find a way of reliably protecting the many on-board electronics from any moisture that might get inside the robot. A special surface coating ensures that acids which form underground cannot get into the vehicle’s interior.
The engineers also had to take account of other requirements to make sure that the robot could move through the mine. It had to be able to cross tracks and negotiate inclines. It also had to be compact enough to fit in the cage in the shaft and to move through passages that are sometimes just 1 m wide. The developers at Innok Robotics produced a vehicle that fulfils these requirements.
The robot uses four drive motors with a combined power of 1,600 W and up to 2,150 N of drive power. Each of its four wheels (the standard version of the Innok Heros usually only has three) measures 41 cm in diameter.
It is also well-equipped with computers: two PCs with powerful Intel Core i7 processors do their job on-board the vehicle and supply the researchers with the processing power they need.
Despite its robust construction, the robot is very compact. It is about 1 m long, 70 cm wide and a good 90 cm tall. It took the Innok Robotics engineers just ten weeks to design and build the Innok Heros to TU Bergakademie’s specifications. Although the autonomous robot for the Mining RoX research project is based on the Innok Heros modular robot platform, the engineers made numerous changes to fulfil the client‘s brief. One of those involved fitting bright lights that can illuminate the dark tunnels.
The Innok Robotics engineers designed the autonomous robot in such a way that the ten or so researchers at TU Bergakademie Freiberg could retrofit the vehicle with the sensors necessary for the research project and at a later stage with a robotic arm. It is therefore easy to upgrade the modular robotic vehicle. Prof. Jung says the robot will eventually be fitted with, among other things, various laser scanners and stereo cameras for carrying out surveying tasks, and gas sensors for monitoring the ambient conditions.
Prof. Jung, who is leading the Mining RoX project, thinks robots have a bright future in mining: „When the conditions get too extreme and dangerous, robots will eventually take over everything and work down there instead of people.” (Medialot/Si)