The Autonomous Mining project, funded by the U.S. Bureau of Mines, is developing technologies to automate the room and pillar coal mining approach. In this approach, a continuous mining machine, such as the Joy CM-16 pictured above, cuts coal and deposits it in a shuttle car. The shuttle car drives through the mine to a conveyer system which transports the coal out of the mine. After the coal in a particular shaft has been cut, a roof bolting machine moves in to support the roof by drilling and inserting bolts. The operation is fraught with danger since the roof can collapse, airborne coal dust can explode, and injuries can occur given the close proximity of people to the heavy equipment. Additionally, operating speeds must be reduced to keep the mine environment hospitable for humans, thus negatively impacting productivity.
To date, our efforts have focused on automating the continuous mining machine. We have developed software to plan and execute miner operations, including sequencing implement motion to effect cutting and repositioning the machine for each sump. Additionally, we have developed algorithms to autonomously map a mine using images from a laser rangefinder taken at multiple locations in the mine. The maps are used by the continuous miner to plan its motion and register its position.
The miner software was used to autonomously cut coal at a research mine in West Virginia. In the future, we plan to automate the shuttle car and roof bolting machine to complete the scenario.