August 2010

Down to earth

Bringing NASA’s Mars’ rover to the mine site

By D. Zlotnikov

The Athena rover is one of a range of extra-terrestrial exploration platforms that have the potential of meeting mining challenges.

If you could get your very own Mars rover, what would you do with it? In essence, this is the question at the heart of a new project at Barrick Gold Corporation. For the last 18 months, Barrick has been partnered with the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) and Peck Tech, a Montreal-based mining technology consulting firm, to adapt a Mars Rover for use at mine sites to explore the potential for advances in areas such as safety, efficiency and geotechnical monitoring.

Testing of the technology is expected to start in the next quarter, says Andrew Scott, director of mining information technology at Barrick. “We see a lot of opportunities in the application of technologies that have been, or will be, developed for space exploration,” he explains. “The harsh environment they have to contend with, the energy limitations, the navigation challenges they have to overcome — how they solve these problems can help us with our problems in the terrestrial sense. Even the experience in robotics and the algorithms they’ve had to develop, demonstrates the robustness we can apply directly to mining.”

The subject of the first round of tests is the Athena rover, a six-wheeled Mars rover prototype, explains Issa Nesnas, group supervisor at NASA JPL and principal investigator for the collaboration. The goal is to collect proof-of-concept data and demonstrate the capabilities of the existing designs, says Nesnas. The results, while likely not a perfect fit for Barrick’s intended use, will then serve to guide design adjustments and further testing. NASA is looking at this partnership as a multi-year collaboration, with multiple projects taking place simultaneously; Athena is just the beginning.

“We have a fleet of rovers, for different types of applications,” Nesnas explains. “We have rovers that can carry different payload sizes, rovers that are wheeled and ones that are legged, and rovers that can traverse 90 degree cliffs.”

The different platforms can be fitted with a wide range of equipment. Because NASA’s original mission for the rovers involved prolonged periods of operation on other planets, the agency has put a lot of effort into miniaturizing its sensing equipment, minimizing both weight and power demands. Now, terrestrial mining is set to reap the benefits of these efforts: smaller rovers can fit into more places, and low power draws mean they can go farther and stay out longer without the need for fresh batteries.

Ground-penetrating radar

One such miniaturized sensor package is the ground-penetrating radar, or GPR. The upcoming testing will work on establishing the possible applications and advantages of the technology to a mine operator. But GPR is already showing promise for the industry, says Peck Tech CEO Jon Peck.

“In its basic commercial form, GPR has been used to identify buried pipes and cables in urban environments prior to construction,” he says. “But in the world of JPL, GPR is used for detecting water and density differences on the surface of planets and at landing sites, prior to putting down a rover.” The technology’s been miniaturized, it runs on extremely low power. It can survive a very wide range of temperatures and operate under very harsh conditions. And you look at all of these constraints and go, ‘Wow, that’s mining.’”

One of the major challenges that Barrick and many other open-pit mines have faced over the years, Peck adds, is the impact to highwall stability caused by standard drilling and blasting operations. With a rover-mounted GPR, the mine operator may gain a better understanding of changes to the rock structure, using the radar to identify the presence fractures that may have resulted from blasting.

“If you can do that without having to drill and geophysically log the holes,” says Peck, “you can enable detailed  identification of the rock mass characteristics for a block  of ground with few additional costs and effort.” And, of course, being able to get the data without having to send humans into high-risk areas is a major advantage as well.

Nesnas adds that another rover, the Axel, is being considered for later stages of testing. The Axel is designed to traverse very steep terrain, to the point of being able to climb down highwalls and across intact and blasted benches in an open-pit mine.

“Interestingly enough, based on some of the images we have of the surface of Mars, there’s an analogy between the kind of layering in open-pit mining and the terrain we’ve seen on parts of Mars’ surface,” says Nesnas, “so this platform could be quite suitable for mining use.”

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