How do scientists explore old, flooded mines when people are unable to dive into the waters? “This sci-fi looking robot may soon be able to answer that question,” said Denis Loctier, a reporter from Euronews.
Back in the 1960s, a pegmatite mine in central Finland was shut down and flooded. Today, the mine has turned into an attraction site for scuba divers, along with being a test site for a European research project UNEXMIN.
The research team is testing prototype robots meant for deep water diving. Researchers say the robots could help them explore the mine for potential industrial value.
“We want to survey flooded mines because mines are seldom abandoned because the minerals are depleted, but they’re abandoned for economical reasons. So there might be still some minerals of value, or there might be some new minerals which we might find,” said Jussi Aaltonon, Mechatronics Engineer at the Tampere University of Technology.
This diving robot is built as a metallic sphere and filled with high-tech electronics. It’s 60 centimeters in diameter and built to withstand the pressure at 500m (1640 ft) deep.
“It can spend much more time underwater than a human diver. It can survive for five hours, even at greater depths than what is reachable to divers — because it doesn’t need human life support systems, only electricity,” explains Norbert Zajzon, UNEXMIN Project Coordinator.
This current field study will give some insight into how well the robot will operate in a natural environment, such as the mines.
The short-term goal is to make the robot completely autonomous. It needs to be capable of entering a mine, map it and return on its own. Researchers say this will take some more testing and fine-tuning.
The robots are equipped with sonars, laser radars, cameras and other sensors that will aid the robot in navigating and studying its environment.
Alfredo Martins, Researcher in Robotics and Autonomous Systems explains, “Inside we have a high-performance computer, with dimensions which were impossible to obtain just a few years ago. We have developed these lasers and other systems ourselves, which allowed us to meet key criteria, including miniaturization.”
The developers of the robots say the robots can be used for commercial purposes, aiding in evaluation services, mining industry and emergency services.
“There’s currently an environmental issue at a Ukrainian salt mine, and they want us as soon as we finish with the project to go there and find out what’s going on in their collapsing salt mines because it’s too dangerous to send human divers,” adds Zajzon.
The robots are to be sent out to the salt mines and explore areas that are inaccessible to humans.
For more information on this project check out the UNEXMIN website here.