Edgar Mine to serve as lab for underground robotics research

The Edgar Experimental Mine in Idaho Springs has long been a unique underground laboratory for future engineers, providing valuable experience to those being trained to find, develop and process natural resources.

Thanks to funding from the National Science Foundation, it will soon be home to cutting-edge research in underground robotics as well.

A team of computer science professors from Colorado School of Mines has been awarded $451,000 in NSF funding to purchase equipment and conduct research on underground robotics applications in Edgar’s one-of-a-kind educational and research environment.

Those applications include not only mining but also inspection and search-and-rescue operations in underground subway tunnels, shopping malls, pedestrian areas and other infrastructure, said Tom Williams, assistant professor of computer science and principal investigator on the project.

“There’s lot of infrastructure being built underground and that presents new challenges,” Williams said. “If you have some sort of security threat in a subway system or some sort of disaster in the tunnels, the techniques you're going to use to deal with those types of situations are much different than what you would use on the surface — because of the networking challenges, because it is dark and smoky, because there's a lot less structure.”

Co-PIs on the project are Computer Science Assistant Professor Hao Zhang, Assistant Professor Neil Dantam and Associate Professor Qi Han. Also contributing their expertise are Mining Engineering Professor Sebnem Duzgun, Electrical Engineering Professor Kevin Moore, Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Andrew Petruska and Computer Science Associate Professor Hua Wang.

The NSF funding will allow researchers to purchase a team of robots for deployment in Edgar’s underground environment — ground robots, amphibious robots, drones and robot arms — as well as sensors, networking equipment and augmented reality headsets to facilitate their use.

Drones could be operated for solo underground exploration or in tandem with ground robots, while robot arms could also be used on their own or mounted to ground robots. Networking equipment will allow robots to communicate with each other and their human teammates, and augmented reality headsets could allow for easier human-robot communication in low-light and dusty environments.

Research areas will include human-robot teaming, networking, planning and human-robot interaction, as well as machine learning, mechanical and electrical engineering, robot ethics and application-driven work on underground information collection, monitoring, surveying, rescue and crisis management.

“Being able to safely inspect underground environments and performing rescues during underground catastrophes is essential to achieve the new underground frontier,” Williams said. “It’s important not only to be able to have robots in those types of environments because they can get into areas that humans can’t but also because they have sensor capabilities that humans don’t — I don’t have laser vision.” 

CONTACT
Emilie Rusch, Public Information Specialist, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3361 | erusch@mines.edu
Mark Ramirez, Managing Editor, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3088 | ramirez@mines.edu