Engineers are working on the development of sophisticated robots which will be capable of better assisting rescue efforts in the wake of mining disasters.

The US Office of Mine Safety and Health Research has publicly requested proposals for rescue robots which possess a broad range of advanced capabilities, including the ability to be lowered into boreholes and bear heavy loads, and the ability to explore as far as a kilometre ahead of human rescue teams.

The timing of the call coincides with a devastating mining disaster in the Turkish coastal city of Soma which has left nearly 300 people dead and dozens more missing. The sheer scale of the disaster and allegations of official culpability have triggered violent protests throughout the country.

While no formal explanation for the disaster has yet to be provided by Turkish officials, mining engineering experts believe the cause of the explosion was a spark from electrical equipment, which resulted in the ignition of accumulated methane or coal dust.

The very nature of the disaster severely impeded rescue efforts by emergency workers, given the hazardous nature of an exploded mine where structural integrity is compromised and pockets of the mine could remain host to toxic gases.

robot rescue

According to robotics expert Brian Hart of Black-i Robotics in Tyngsboro Massachusetts, technology which is already being developed could have provided critical assistance to rescue efforts following the disaster in Soma.

“The technology needs further refinement, but it is out there,” said Hart.

Mining safety engineers have spent much of the past decade on the development of scouting robots for mining rescue operations, although the results have thus far been mixed.

After Utah’s Crandall Canyon suffered a fatal collapse in 2007 which left six miners dead, a camera scout robot sent to explore the disaster became stranded in a borehole. Several years later, a group of four robots were left incapacitated by water damage when sent into New Zealand’s Pike River Mine in 2010 after a methane explosion killed 29 people.

The technology has nonetheless made rapid strides in recent years, with companies now focusing on the development of robots which are custom-designed for the exploration of coal mines instead of attempting to convert bomb-detecting robots to their purposes.

The Gemini Scout Mine Rescue Robot, developed by New Mexico’s Sandia National Labs through a program sponsored by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, is just one example.

The device is an all-terrain robot which is tailored for operation in a hazardous mining environment. That allows it order to replace humans during the early phases of rescue planning and response.

In addition to entering perilous areas in advance of human rescuers to provide information on conditions, the Gemini Scout is also capable of a broad variety of other missions, include search and rescue, payload deployment delivery and first responder support.

Despite these technological advances, mining safety experts remain adamant that the best way to prevent miners dying in disasters like the Soma explosion in future is to introduce better regulation.

“There are ways to mine coal safely, and coal miners don’t have to die in the hundreds every year,” said Celeste Monforton, a former policy adviser for the US Mine Safety and Health Administration. “But that takes a level of investment, and also a regulatory system that is going to mandate those kind of controls.”