Mine operators require regular inspections to automate data capture, ensure worker safety, comply with regulatory concerns, and more. However, mines typically have areas or periods of time that are hazardous or hard for people to access, making it difficult to safely and efficiently conduct these inspections.
In the past few decades, new automation platforms have entered the market, including wheeled and tracked robots, drones, and legged robots. These platforms, whether autonomous or remotely operated, can simplify this challenge, entering difficult or dangerous areas to collect data, map hazards, and perform other inspection tasks.
But how do you choose the right inspection platform? The answer can vary depending on the circumstances—the specific environment, the type of inspection required, and the unique specifications of the platform all play a role. Many operators will have a mixed fleet with drones, wheeled robots, and quadrupeds, so let’s look at some factors that make these solutions the right—or wrong—choice in any given scenario.
Mining offers some of the most challenging environments for many of these platforms—uneven surfaces, frequent changes, obstacles including people and equipment, cramped quarters, low light, or limited visibility.
This is one of the areas where legged robots shine over their winged or wheeled counterparts. If you can walk in an environment, there is a good chance a quadruped can handle it as well. On the other hand, wheeled and tracked robots get hung up by uneven ground and loose rocks or debris, requiring areas to be cleared before the robot can conduct an inspection.
While it might seem like drones are the obvious solution—they can fly right over debris—the ground surface isn’t the only obstacle. Many wheeled robots and drones struggle in tight quarters. Low ceilings or narrow passageways can force a drone too low to fly or stop a bulky wheeled robot in its tracks. By contrast, a quadruped can adjust its stance or reposition its body more dynamically to duck under obstacles or thread through narrow gaps.
Additionally, both drones and wheeled or tracked robots are more prone to kicking up dust and dirt than their legged counterparts. An inspection platform that inadvertently obscures what you’re trying to inspect won’t be the best choice in a dusty environment.
Of course, it also matters what data you need from an inspection. It’s easy enough to equip a drone or robot with a camera to collect visual data, and depending on the angles you want to see, there may be an obvious choice. Ground robots can’t beat a drone for capturing top-down images. But what if you need to create a digital twin of mine tunnels, detect hazardous gasses, or perform any of a number of other possible inspections?
Ground robots can carry sensors, cameras, computers, and more through a site or area of interest to capture reliable data. But drones don’t typically have the same carrying capacity. Without being able to physically carry larger and heavier payloads, drones have a limit to what data they can capture. Additionally, drones can struggle with hovering in a static position. Inspection tasks that require a maintained position over a period of time—laser scanning or air sampling, for example—are therefore more difficult with a drone than with a robot.
The last major category to consider is overall robustness and functionality. This includes specific actions like speed or battery life, and more broad areas like reliability and ease of use. Battery life, for example, is typically longer for robotic solutions than it is for drones, meaning they can conduct longer and more complex inspection routes.
Similarly, you want to consider how easy a platform is to customize, deploy, and operate, given your unique needs and requirements. A platform that seems good on paper may fall short if it is difficult to use in real world conditions or can’t be adapted as priorities evolve.
Spot is an agile mobile robot designed to automate sensing and inspection in even the toughest environments. With unprecedented mobility and a robust payload ecosystem, Spot enables you to create routine tunnel inspection routes, take measurements, and ensure safe working conditions. To learn more about getting started with Spot, check our ebook outlining the six steps to implementing agile mobile robots.
Chris McCasky is the Sales Manager for Energy & Natural Resources at Boston Dynamics.