Telerobotic experiments for mining
The application of telerobotics to mining is currently being employed in production systems around the world. While mining companies have dominated the pursuit to implement this technology, organizations within other industries have continued to search for ways in which telerobotics could support more productive and efficient operations within their environments. Widespread adoption, however, requires development of the technology to a level well beyond its current state.
A Canadian Research Chair in Robotics and Mine Automation has been established at Laurentian University to advance research and development in this area. In 2002, Cambrian College and Laurentian University embarked on a collaboration to establish a telerobotic research and testing facility. The establishment of this laboratory was an important first step in the development of telerobotic technology and its applications, and has continued to be a significant resource for research and development in this area.
The Laurentian portion of the laboratory consists of a teleoperation chair and a telecommunications control room, both of which continue to be used in ongoing research into teleoperation. At Cambrian College, a series of laboratories support the ability to design, build, and teleoperate 1/4 scale models to full-sized mining machines and full mine simulations. As this work progresses, new control systems, machines, and processes will continue to be developed using telerobotics as a foundation.
The wireless connection between Laurentian University and Cambrian College is accomplished with a “dark fibre” and provides the opportunity to study mobile and multi-machine operation. The economic and safety implications of multiple mine operation scenarios and multiple levels of automation using telerobotics systems can also be examined. The dark fibre between Laurentian and Cambrian connects a head-end located in the laboratory to computers on-board a “teleoperation chair” that incorporates a seat with joysticks and displays to allow an operator to teleoperate a machine. This project has revealed the potential for development of a universal interface that allows a configurable computer interface for all types of machines.
The dark fibre also enters Cambrian College and is connected to a second head-end that supports mobile data communications and mobile video. Sophisticated mining models have been created to test the telerobotic technology being developed. These units incorporate identical electronic and telecommunication systems to those that are currently installed on production robotic machines working in the field at Inco Limited. This allows experimentation with new systems on scale models both at the teleoperation lab and in real mine facilities. A fleet of models is also being created to assist in chair and control system software experimentation. These units will accommodate a link to a pair of laser scanners, allowing the collection of tunnel or drift data and experimentation with alternate guidance systems, providing experimental test-beds for teleoperation and data collection.
To continue the development of this technology, the author and his research team have used the lab and a test-bed in Long Lake, Sudbury, to develop a high-capacity, underwater telecommunications system capable of teleoperating underwater machines. A telerobotic control system for unstructured underwater environments is currently being developed and tested using a fibre optic light buoy system and a corresponding on-board telerobotic system to optically transmit and receive information used to operate a robot using virtual reality.
Originally intended to accommodate the study of telerobotics for mining applications, this research has significant potential for application within manufacturing, space, underwater, and military environments.