RESPEC has been working to develop a fully autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) system for underground inspection, mapping, and search and rescue in abandoned and inaccessible mine workings since late 2018. In partnership with the robotics and autonomous systems experts at AutoModality (www.automodality.com) and with funding from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), RESPEC is on the cutting edge of underground drone technology research and development.

Manually piloted UAV systems for mapping and inspections in underground mines have gained popularity over the last several years. Despite continuous hardware and software development, however, underground drone flights have been largely limited to accessible and relatively low-hazard areas because of the requirement to maintain radio frequency (RF) communication between the UAV and the operator. Fail-safe mechanisms designed to bring the UAV back to its start position in the case of RF signal loss are nonfunctional underground because of the lack of GPS signal; as a result, many underground drone flights have led to a loss of UAV hardware in areas that are off-limits to the personnel and equipment that might be used to recover them. Underground UAV flight requires extremely skilled pilots that can navigate passages and avoid obstacles in low-light, dusty, and wet conditions. These challenges have led the industry to begin exploring and commercializing fully autonomous systems that do not have the same signal restrictions as above ground UAVs and do not require expert pilots to achieve their mission.

The primary goal of RESPEC’s autonomous UAV project is to improve efficiency and increase miner safety in emergency and high-hazard scenarios while enabling accurate, rapid inspections and three-dimensional (3D) surveys where GPS and RF signals are not available. The system leverages AutoModality’s knowledge of and experience with autonomous bridge inspections and combines several sensors with AutoModality’s Perceptive Navigation™ software to enable push-button autonomous flights underground. With onboard computing and deep-learning artificial intelligence software that is designed to be flexible, programmable, and user-specific, the possibilities for applying this system in underground mines are far reaching. Among other things, the system can be used for 3D surveying and mapping of stopes; hazard, equipment, and ground-support inspections; exploration and mapping of abandoned workings; and locating and assisting trapped miners in an emergency.

The autonomous underground UAV system from RESPEC and AutoModality will change how miners think about underground drones and create a safer, more efficient underground mining environment. A video of a 100 percent autonomous, 5,000-foot flight with navigation around two corners and positive identification of a prone mannequin can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/356767905.

The RESPEC/AutoModality autonomous UAV is expected to be available for commercial sale in mid-2020, with inspection and mapping services becoming available in early 2020. For more information, contact Ben Haugen, RESPEC’s Remote Geotechnics Program Lead, via email (ben.haugen@respec.com) or telephone (605.394.6429).