June/July 2009

A cartographer with a difference

A Sudbury-based company develops a robotic system to create 3D maps of mine tunnels

By P. Caulfield

RoboMap was used at Vale Inco’s North Mine

Theodolites, altimeters and even GPS instruments may soon disappear from mine surveyors’ kits. If the latest innovation by a research and development company in Sudbury, Ontario, gains ground, the traditional ways of surveying and mapping could well be rendered “old school.”

Penguin Automated Systems Inc. has developed a topographic mapping system that uses the latest robotic technology to create three-dimensional maps of underground mine tunnels and transfer the data to engineering CAD systems. RoboMap, as the system is called, not only does all this, but also does it more accurately and quickly than conventional methods.

According to Greg Baiden, chief technical officer of Penguin Automated Systems Inc., “RoboMap is a significant advance in tunnel profiling technology that can measure tunnel surface roughness, tunnel roadbed quality, ventilation systems and tunnel ground support quality.”

How RoboMap works

The RoboMap system consists of a battery-operated robot that is run by an operator using a hand-held wireless remote. RoboMap combines gyroscopes and LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging — an optical remote sensing technology) to gather sectional scans of mining tunnels, as well as position and altitude data.

The data collected by RoboMap is stored in on-board hard drives and transferred to an engineering office via memory storage systems, or directly, by wireless networks. They can be exported to all popular formats for display in viewers and CAD systems.

With a self-contained inertial navigation system, RoboMap is self-powered and can run for over ten hours on a single charge from the mains or a vehicle battery. Its laser scanner has an eight-metre range and can perform 180 scans per second, with 180 samples in each sectional scan. It can scan tunnels up to 16 metres wide and eight metres high. RoboMap also provides such post-processing features as volume approximation and point-to-point distance calculation. In addition to surveying mine tunnels, it can also map other underground passages, such as sewer tunnels and access strips.

“RoboMap can be used anywhere that a GPS (global positioning system) doesn’t work,” Baiden said, adding, “A GPS signal can’t be transmitted through rock, brick, concrete or glass. LIDAR, working in sync with gyroscopes, is a fundamentally different technology.” According to Baiden, RoboMap is the first known application to use gyroscopes and LIDAR together.

Tomorrow’s technology today at North Mine

Despite its futuristic-sounding moniker, RoboMap has already been used successfully at Vale Inco’s North Mine nickel operation in Sudbury, Ontario. Colin Flett, former Vale Inco senior evaluation engineer, said that the technology was used several years ago “to verify or to make proactive changes to maximize results.”

Investigating the North Mine in 2003, Flett’s team discovered that a survey station near a shaft had been shot incorrectly 15 years previously. “By the time we drove out the 3,000 feet and started tying in to other levels, we knew we were about seven feet off,” he said. “The RoboMap system found the error and we were quickly able to see where the error had occurred and where the survey differed from the RoboMap results. We went back to the records and saw that a calculation error had in fact been made.”

RoboMap also ferreted out another calculation error at the North Mine. “A drift from the mine was supposed to meet another from the South Mine, thereby joining the two mines,” Flett recalled. “But about 500 feet from the point where they were projected to meet, RoboMap predicted that they would miss each other by six feet laterally.” Subsequent surveying of the two mines confirmed the lateral error that RoboMap had detected.

Experience has certainly made Flett a believer in RoboMap. “Anything that allows a more accurate survey will inevitably reduce rework for the operator,” he said. “With surveys by RoboMap, you won’t have the problem with drifts that don’t meet and that then require slash-and-trim work to make them join up.”

In the pre-RoboMap past, when it was discovered that a mine level was not in the correct location, level-to-level drill holes required a degree of reverse engineering to allow for the discrepancy. “It was only after a number of unsuccessful attempts that a correction was made,” Flett explained.

Another reason for his advocacy of RoboMap relates to the fact that check surveys over a long distance in high traffic areas are difficult to organize. “This is particularly the case in a 24/7 environment where production would be affected,” added Flett.

The future of robotic mining

Baiden got the idea for RoboMap while thinking about creating the mining equivalent of an automobile assembly line utilizing robots. “For robotic mining to work, the robots need to know all the features of the tunnel in which they’re operating,” he explained.

Although there are relatively few examples of robotic mining, Baiden expects there will be many more in the future. “It’s hard to predict when — anywhere between five and 30 years from now,” he said.

Teleoperation, the technology behind RoboMap, entails the ability to remotely operate robotic machines by virtually putting people inside the machine. Teleoperation requires a system that incorporates a robotic controller on the machine, a high-capacity broadband, wired and wireless networks, and a teleoperation workstation.

The teleoperator workstation and the robotic machine are on a high-capacity network, which gives the operator access to all machine data. In addition to machine information, the teleoperator can access real-time video and audio feedback; engineering, maintenance and cost-control data; and status reports on other robotic machines on the network.

“Mining, construction, underwater and on-surface equipment can all be teleoperated,” Baiden explained, adding that additional segments of the work cycle will be automated through artificial intelligence systems as technology advances. “As more advanced systems are adopted, the human-machine interface in the work cycle will be reduced, which will lead to additional productivity gains and cost savings,” he added. In addition to Vale Inco, Rio Tinto and LKAB are currently using teleoperation technologies in some aspects of their operation.

Why Sudbury?

Located in the 40,000 square-foot Penguin Research Centre, the company has 20 employees, all of whom work in research and development. “Being located in Sudbury gives us a big advantage,” said Baiden. “There are a lot of mines in the area and, therefore, plenty of opportunities to test our products.”

Sudbury — which many believe to be Canada’s mining capital — might just hold that title for another reason, as it holds yet another important key that could revolutionize the future of mining across the globe.

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