Robotics stepping up safety in underground mine inspections: SafeSight Exploration, Redpath Mining partner on MRC Rail Runner.

AuthorKelly, Lindsay

Combining old technology with modern robotics has resulted in a new safety innovation for underground mines that's expected to reduce risk and improve efficiency.

The MRC Rail Runner, developed by SafeSight Exploration Inc. of North Bay, is a utility robot clamped onto a mechanized rail climber (MRC), which is sent up into a raise to do an inspection.

The robot is designed to replace humans who are required to visually inspect the raise to look for risks like potentially loose rock.

In underground mining, a raise is a vertical underground excavation, running between various levels, that's used for ventilation to the surface or for transporting ore and waste rock.

"Provincial regulations say that, every shift, the environment must be assessed or observed, and that meant sometimes travelling a couple hundred feet inside the raise to assess any inherent danger in this rock," said Mike Campigotto, SafeSight's president.

"That meant putting a human being at risk to visually inspect, and there wasn't any alternative for that."

With the MRC Rail Runner, the robot enters the raise, records video, and returns to the operator, effectively completing the required inspection without the worker ever having to enter the raise.

SafeSight took the lead on this project after being approached by North Bay-based mine builder Redpath Mining last November.

The two companies had collaboratively worked before on SafeSight's underground drone inspection technology for stopes and other survey work. The drone is equipped with light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology, and high-definition cameras.

But it was too costly and impractical to send a drone into a raise for every single inspection, said Stephen Korski, Redpath's manager of research and development.

Redpath wondered if the technology could be adapted to a mechanized rail system instead.

"We had tried thinking of a way you could do it where you didn't need a person to up there at all, and that's what prompted the whole thing," Korski said.

"From an R&D perspective, we try to find something that works in another industry or is already out there and see if we can adapt it to our use."

Mechanized rail systems were first introduced underground in the 1970s as a safer, more efficient method for advancing mine development.

The rails, bolted onto the wall of a stope, can carry a cage for two miners and equipment. When they arrived at the face, the cage opens out as a work platform.

As contractors started using...

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