Mining Contract: Underground Vehicle Guidance Technology Refinement
During an emergency underground evacuation, miners will most likely have to travel through obscured visual conditions. Developing equipment that would aid miners in navigating such conditions will have significant impact on ability to escape and prevention of fatalities during an emergency event. Thermal camera imagery and scanning radar object detection have been demonstrated as effective in smoky and dusty atmospheres. However, performance improvements for both commercial technologies are required to provide a reliable and easily interpreted, stand-alone vision and guidance system for use under emergency conditions in underground mines. These improvements represent final development of practical technologies that can be adopted by the mining community in a short period of time.
Contract Status & Impact
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The 2006 mine disasters at the Sago Mine, Aracoma Alma Mine No. 1, and Darby No.1 Mine, which resulted in the deaths of 19 miners, focused attention on the need to better enable personnel to confidently, safely, and rapidly evacuate underground mines as the initial and most desirable response to a range of possible emergency situations.
To aid miners in rapid underground evacuation, NIOSH has previously awarded three contracts devoted to conceptualizing and testing a mine escape vehicle (MEV).
- The “Mine Escape Vehicle Concept Investigation” contract developed a conceptual design that included the capacity to provide enhanced life support for a number of miners, operate in an atmosphere with little or no visibility, and travel at speeds faster than miners could walk out of the mine.
- The “Development and Testing of a Mine Escape Vehicle” contract developed a proof-of-concept vehicle constructed from the conceptual designs of the previous contract. After modifications based upon the results of initial performance testing conducted at surface sites, the vehicle was tested at an underground coal mine in Eastern Kentucky for seven months of operational evaluation through routine use transporting crews to and from a working section. The miners using this modified mantrip embraced the general MEV concept. However, shortcomings were noted in the technologies used to provide the operator forward vision and guidance under obscured visual conditions.
- The “Mine Escape Vehicle Technology Retrofit Demonstration” contract further advanced the MEV concept and re-evaluated all of the technology installed on the proof-of-concept vehicle. A major focus of the contract effort was to investigate new radar technology better suited for forward guidance and obstacle detection. An economical scanning radar developed by the automotive industry for collision warning and avoidance demonstrated promise for improved operator situational awareness, but additional software refinement was necessary to realize the full potential for underground mine application. In addition, an approach was suggested to enhance the performance of available thermal imaging cameras and provide clearer and more detailed images.
Under the current contract, Raytheon investigated the application of infrared illuminators to improve the performance of a thermal imaging camera (TIC) system in environments with small temperature contrasts. Additionally, reflectors or low-power infrared emitters that would be used as reference points in a mine were investigated along with the performance capabilities and technical limitations of current state-of the-art hand-held infrared sensing devices. The overall objective was to demonstrate elements of a reliable, easily interpreted, stand-alone infrared vision and guidance system for use in underground mines under obscured (smoky, dusty) visual conditions. In addition, Raytheon investigated hardware and software modifications to commercially available automotive collision warning radar systems that could be utilized to improve MEV forward vision and guidance system performance in obscured underground environments.
Testing of the TIC was performed at three field sites: the West Virginia University (WVU) Mine Simulator, the NIOSH Safety Research Coal Mine in Bruceton, PA, and the CONSOL Harvey Mine in Washington, PA. The WVU simulated mine enabled testing under smoke and fire conditions while the other two test sites presented a range of environmental underground conditions. The WVU testing demonstrated the TIC’s abilities and shortcomings in smoky environments; the NIOSH testing illustrated that the TIC can provide visual navigation information with minimal temperature differences between mine floor and ribs. It also demonstrated that body heat can illuminate surface reflective objects, and that heated objects are highly visible. The CONSOL testing illustrated that the TIC can still operate in a fully isothermal and dry environment, but differentiation of mine ribs and floor is less defined.
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