By James Neeley
A shopping cart sized robot driven by a video game joystick controller is revolutionizing underground mapping in the mining industry.
The Robot Mapping System, known as RoboMap, was developed and tested in partnership between Penguin Automated Systems Inc. and Vale Inco, said Greg Baiden, president of Penguin Automated Systems Inc.
The system was recently used in the surveying of a three-kilometre tunnel connecting Inco's North and South mines.
RoboMap is fitted with a highly accurate compass that identifies three dimensional points. Laser profiling is used to collect hundreds of data points per second, Baiden explained. "With this system we can map an entire mine in about a month. By hand it would take more like a year."
Traditional mine survey works exactly like surveying above ground, Baiden explained.
A couple surveyors set up at a location to take two or three distance measurements of the side and ceiling,. then pick up the gear, move 20 feet and do it again.
"Because we have a very accurate gyro (compass) on board, we can drive the machine forward, stop on a point and collect a hundred data points. And we can stop more frequently," he said.
The system can also collect data as it is traveling.
"As you drive along and a laser scanner continues collecting information," Baiden said.
“The amount of information available is much more accurate than we've ever had before, enabling surveyors to develop far more detailed underground maps,” he said.
The various systems of automated mapping being used above ground needs GPS (Global Positioning System), Baiden said. "But not the RoboMap."
Tranferring a surveying vehicle, like those used by the Ministry of Transportation, "underground to do surveying didn't exist before," he said.
The RoboMap's integrated remote controlled system can easily fit and manoeuvre through underground drifts and tunnels.
"(RoboMap) is a centre articulated vehicle and it's very easy to operate,"
Baiden said explaining a game controller — a Logitech Sony Playstation 3 controller — is used to operate the device.
One day soon RoboMap will be controlled from surface via remote. The system is also useful in obtaining quality measurements of wall thickness, surveying road conditions and ventilation systems.
"You can actually see the details of the ventilation systems or look and see where safety stations are located," Baiden said. "You can do all these kinds of things you just couldn't do before because the volume of information required was just so great and hard to get."
The system is a tool to improve mining operations and conditions underground, Baiden said.
For example, mine ventilation is a huge cost, and without accurate maps of the roughness of the wall and floors it's hard to improve the overall process of ventilation.
The same goes for underground roadbeds, he said. "There is no way to accurately map roadbeds and do surveys underground of what roadbeds are relative to others."
After seeing the RoboMap in action, Colin Flett, a retired Vale Inco engineer said, "I'm a firm believer in the system for its speed and the (minimal) impact it has on production."
Where traditional surveying would require the mine to shut down operations in certain sectors to protect the surveyors, he explained, RoboMap can function without disruptions.
The project to link Inco's North and South mines displayed the potential of the system, Flett said., explaining the goal was to connect two tunnels spanning about three kilometres, 5,200 feet underground.
"With small errors every time you set up a survey gun there was a chance we would be out as much as 20 feet."
With a rail system planned to connect the two mines, Flett said, "If we were even five feet too high we would probably have to go back 1,000 metres to correct the problem.
"The tolerances had to be much more exact," he said.
As mines move wider and deeper, advanced surveying technology could become an integral part of operations, Flett said.
"It's a good second check. Every six months or so go in and run the (RoboMap) over a long distance to make sure we're all headed in the right direction."
Penguin plans to market the RoboMap as a service tool, Baiden said.
"The gyros are sensitive, and it's important to keep control of access to the gyros."
The RoboMap system can be transported into a mine and operated, either on its own system or integrated into the mine's system, Baiden explained.
It took more than three years to develop the RoboMap technology.
"Although the system came out of the world of mining, there is huge a potential of applications for it."
The RoboMap could be used to map the inside of buildings, to help plan tunnel routes or underground sewer systems.