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See a mine with a drone's eyes

Published: 20 September 2018

An autonomous drone in a mine, based only on onboard sensory systems, will be able to autonomous explore an unknown mining environment. The drone will fly without being controlled by humans and will explore the mine by providing multiple services e.g. visual inspection, 3D mapping, dangerous gases detection, and other crucial information for the mine operators above the ground. Nobody in the world has done this assignment before - robotic scientists at Luleå University of Technology have taken the challenge.

– We were the first in the world to provide a robust service of aerial inspection of wind turbines with autonomous drones. We will try to be also the first in the world to fly robustly autonomous drones in underground mines, George Nikolakopoulos, says, Professor of Robotics and Automation at Luleå University of Technology.

The biggest challenge for the university's robotics scientist in the SIMS project is to successfully fly an autonomous drone safely and reliably in a real mine. The drone will use onboard sensors to understand where it is, something that becomes extra difficult in a dark mine and without prior means of localization. In the lab, the autonomous drone works excellent, but it is difficult to find sensors that have the same performance in a mine as in a lab.

Intense Successful Experimentations

Luleå University of Technology made a very successful and attentive experiment outdoors, in June, where their autonomous drones independently and with great precision inspected wind turbines in Skellefteå. 

Other successful attempts have taken place in Rödbergsfortet in Boden, in an environment reminiscent of a mine. There, the scientists flew semi-autonomously, that is, the drones were remotely piloted by an operator, while avoiding obstacles that a human operator could not perceive. In that experiment, the researchers got evidence that the cameras of the drone can provide a very good and accurate 3D reconstruction of a mining environment.

– Another important issue for us to solve is how we can optimally work with autonomous drones in the mine when making quick assessments. Should we send up multiple drones at the same time or use fewer but let them work faster? Emil Fresk, says, researcher in Robotics at Luleå University of Technology.

Faster, cheaper and safer 

By using autonomous drones, with advance capabilities of inspecting and perceiving the surrounding mining environment, there might not be any more the need for having human workers in extremely hazardous mining environments. Drones could be further utilized for the case of autonomous inspection of large mine ventilation systems or shaft inspection as it is commonly called, or to identify the size of a cavity formed after blasting. Unlike classical mobile robots, drones can emerge in these challenging environments. 

– Using drones is faster, cheaper and safer. An autonomous drone can perceive the surrounding environment with great detail and create very reliable results from the analysis of the measurements, George Nikolakopoulos, says. 

During the autumn, the robotic researchers are planning to evaluate the drones in real mining environments

George Nikolakopoulos

George Nikolakopoulos, Professor and Head of Subject

Phone: +46 (0)920 491298
Organisation: Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, Signals and Systems, Department of Computer Science, Electrical and Space Engineering