Archive November 2010

The robot – can it help out at Pike River? Peter Griffin Nov 22


UPDATED: This evening’s press conference on the rescue effort underway at the Pike River mine had much discussion of the military robot that is being prepared for deployment into the mine entrance.

"V2" - the converted bomb disposal robot used in a West Virginia mine search and rescue operation in 2006

"V2" - the converted bomb disposal robot used in a West Virginia mine search and rescue operation in 2006

The military robot entered Pike River mine this morning but broke down after progressing about 500 metres into the mine shaft, reportedly due to water from the ceiling causing damage to the robot. See the latest Science Media Centre update quoting international robotics experts on the track record of mobile robots in mine research and recovery operation

Tasman District police area commander Superintendent Gary Knowles said the robot being supplied by the military would progress up the entrance of the mine and carry four video cameras. It could also carry sensors for detecting gas. Is it a robot specially designed for mining rescue missions? No, it isn’t. But there also isn’t such a device in deployment anywhere.

As Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall said at the press conference:

“Globally is there anything better? No.”

He added that the robot, which is a multi-use device used for everything from bomb disposal to traversing disaster zones, could only be deployed in fresh air, because it is not “intrinsically safe”. That means it is not designed from the ground up to prevent electronic charges or sparks that could trigger an explosion in the presence of certain mixtures of gas. It has 1000 metres of fibre optic cable which it will trail behind it, sending video back to the outside world and allowing its controllers to steer it. Knowles said it would carry in its mechanical hand a rag or piece of paper as a visual aid to gauge if there is airflow in parts of the shaft it can reach.

The limit in the length of the existing cable available for the robot and its battery life will limit the extent to which the robot can explore the mine – though the cable is apparently being extended up to 2.5km to reach the full length of the shaft. It will also have to manoeuvre its way around a large mining vehicle abandoned in the middle of the shaft. The robot’s military handlers are apparently completing a risk assessment to make sure introducing the robot to the mine isn’t likely to trigger an explosion. But that prompted an interesting question from one of the journalists attending the press conference – if the robot will only be deployed in fresh-air scenarios, why not just send a person down? Pike River’s Peter Whittall suggested its a matter of relative risk – sending a robot down is risky, but sending a person down is even riskier, given the increased potential for loss of life if something goes wrong.

Robots as first responders

Robots have been deployed in mining disasters before, most notably in 2006 at the Sago coal mine in West Virginia, where 12 miners were killed in an explosion. The robot deployed was the US Mine Safety and Health Association’s V2:

V2 is approximately 50 inches tall and weighs over 1200 pounds. It is propelled by explosion-proof motors that drive rubber tracks similar to a military tank. It is equipped with navigation and surveillance cameras, lighting, atmospheric detectors, night vision capability, two way voice communication, and a manipulator arm.

The manufacturer is Remotec, Inc. of Oak Ridge, TN, a world leader in hazardous duty robotic vehicles. Remotec has designed and developed robots for applications such as bomb squads, hazmat, military, swat team, remote inspection of nuclear facilities, etc. MSHA acquired the specially designed robot at a cost of $265,000.

However, the robot struggled in the terrain of the mine, bogging down in mud 9,500 feet inside the main shaft. Rescuers eventually left it behind as they headed deeper into the shaft. In 2007 an improvised robot crawler was sent into a mine at Crandall Canyon in Utah, but as this report outlines, it proved “no match for seismic activity, groundwater and other challenges”:

Unable to provide the rescuers with much information, the robot was left down the borehole overnight. Unfortunately, when the crew returned to retrieve it the next morning they discovered that the hole had shifted and the robot could no longer make its way back to the surface. Despite several attempts to remove the robot, including using a 400-pound chisel to break up the ground blocking its escape, the $35,000 robot became permanently trapped 52 feet below the surface.

The above description appears to actually be based on the report Mobile Robots in Mine Rescue and Recovery by Professor Robin Murphy et al. Professor Murphy runs the Centre for Robot-assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University , and is a world-leading expert on the deployment of mobile robots in disaster zones including mines. She is quoted in the Science Media Centre update above.

David Cliff, Associate Professor at the Minerals Industry Safety and Health Centre at The University of Queensland, told the Science Media Centre today that robots had yet to prove their value in mine search and rescue operations:

’Robots in general in the past have seldom worked — they are not able to cope with the level of damage found in the mines and are not flame proof or intrinsically safe. A robot was used in the USA at Sago with limited success.

’They cannot be used in flammable atmospheres. They usually trail a cable for control and communications and these are prone to damage. SIMTARS have such a robot with cameras, gas monitoring and temperature sensing. NUMBAT is the most famous AUS robot which never achieved its potential — it cost millions of dollars but needed much more to make it really useful.’

Potential for development

Still, several experts are confident robots have a useful role to play in mine disasters with further refinement. William L. “Red” Whittaker is director of the Field Robotics Center and founder of the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. In this interview, he expresses optimism that robots are close to proving their worth in challenging mine search and rescue operations.

In a mine there are corridors and intersections and walls and floors and a roof — for a robot’s navigation and reasoning that’s a lot of information. But it’s still a lot different than sending a robot into rush-hour traffic, for instance, to head two miles across town. A mine is a relatively simple world for a robot because it is uncluttered by many unanticipated items. In an office building there is far more complexity and clutter — desks, water coolers, signs, and people. So a mine is an amenable environment for a robotic device designed for simple navigation.

There is no fundamental barrier to good locomotion or moving through mine conditions or getting command and control via that robot or appending sense detectors or illumination devices or scanners. So useful rescue response robots could be specialized and deployed in the near term — there’s no leap of physics or big missing piece of technology for machines that could move quickly and effectively in mines.

Other technology that would aid search and rescue teams in the event of mining disasters is also being developed. RFID tags could be carried by miners, transmitting data continuously about their location. But the range of these tags are limited. Inertial portable navigation systems and underground GPS devices are in development to get around the limitations of RFID.

Mechanical help at Pike River

Given the patchy track record of robotic devices in aiding in mine search and rescue operations, its important not to invest too much hope in what the New Zealand military’s robot could achieve. Still, robotics experts will likely be watching with interest as the robot is deployed as each mining incident gives them valuable information about the limitations and potential of the technology.

V2 is approximately 50 inches tall and weighs over 1200 pounds. It is propelled by explosion-proof motors that drive rubber tracks similar to a military tank. It is equipped with navigation and surveillance cameras, lighting, atmospheric detectors, night vision capability, two way voice communication, and a manipulator arm.

The manufacturer is Remotec, Inc. of Oak Ridge, TN, a world leader in hazardous duty robotic vehicles. Remotec has designed and developed robots for applications such as bomb squads, hazmat, military, swat team, remote inspection of nuclear facilities, etc. MSHA acquired the specially designed robot at a cost of $265,000.

Methane fingered in coal mine explosion Peter Griffin Nov 20

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The families of up to 30 miners and contractors working at the Pike River coal mine on New Zealand’s West Coast face an agonizing wait overnight until a rescue effort can be launched in the morning to attempt to reach the miners.

That rescue effort was tonight hampered by worries that in the wake of the explosion at the mine, ventilation in the mine shaft was not functioning due to loss of power, potentially leading to the build-up of dangerous gases.

The cause of the explosion at the mine is still to be determined, but mining safety expert Dave Fiekert has already fingered a build up of methane gas and or coal dust as a possible culprit. Mining companies around the world face a constant struggle to avoid dangerous accumulations of methane gas and coal dust as they go about extracting coal underground.

Volatile methane

Pike River's ventilation shaft

Pike River's ventilation shaft, which previously experienced a rock fall requiring costly repairs

Methane goes hand in hand with coal as the two are formed together, the methane trapped in coal seams or the surrounding rock strata. How much methane exists depends to some extent on the geological pressures, but as mining activity takes place, the pressure is reduced and methane gas can be released, as this interesting explanation of methane in the mining context explains:

“In underground mining, methane is released into the mine workings during mining. Mining regulations require methane to be diluted in the ventilation air, and then vented to the atmosphere. Mines can also remove methane before and during mining by using degasification systems. The gas can be vented, flared (not currently done in the U.S.), or recovered for its energy content. Emissions are reduced if recovered gas is flared or used. Up to 50 to 60 percent of methane can typically be recovered with degasification; the remainder is released in the ventilation air.”

How dangerous is methane? Well, that depends on what concentration it is present in. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration explains further:

[Methane is] an odorless substance that is nontoxic and is harmless at some concentrations. Methane, however, can displace all or part of the atmosphere in a confined space(1); and the hazards presented by such displacement can vary greatly, depending on the degree of displacement. With only 10 percent displacement, methane produces an atmosphere which, while adequate for respiration, can explode violently.

A lot of science and research has gone into estimating how much methane is likely to exist in different kinds of mines, coming up with ways of extracting it and evolving technology to detect dangerous levels of methane in mine shafts. Ventilation shafts are common features of underground mines and Pike River was employing ventilation as a safety measure at its mine. However, it is a tricky business estimating and managing methane levels in mine shafts, as faults in rock can become conduits for methane from other geographically removed sources. This paper outlines the potential for “unforeseen mine gas emissions in quantities sufficient to create hazardous conditions”.

In fact, this Stuff story points to that exact risk being present with Pike River:

The 5.5m -wide, 4.5m high tunnel had to pass through the Hawera fault – a 60m-wide zone of fractured rock with a risk of methane gas infiltration sufficient to require flameproof mining equipment to be used.

Coal dust and the “explosion pentagon”

The other potentially explosive hazard in coal mines is a build up of coal dust. This hazard is as old as mining itself and has been responsible for countless deaths since the 19th century. Working at coal seams with industrial equipment throws up a large amount of dust, which if not properly extracted or appropriately dispersed can explode. OSHA again explains:

In addition to the familiar fire triangle of oxygen, heat, and fuel (the dust), dispersion of dust particles in sufficient quantity and concentration can cause rapid combustion known as a deflagration.

If the event is confined by an enclosure such as a building, room, vessel, or process equipment, the resulting pressure rise may cause an explosion. These five factors (oxygen, heat, fuel, dispersion, and confinement) are known as the ’Dust Explosion Pentagon’. If one element of the pentagon is missing, an explosion cannot occur.

In the confinement of a coal mine shaft, the conditions for coal dust combustion are obviously quite favourable.

Echoes of West Virginia

The Pike River mine explosion, on the face of it, would appear to mirror some of the characteristics of the explosion in April at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia which killed 29 miners.An investigation into the tragedy is currently underway – you can track its progress via this website.

This BoingBoing article features mining engineer Dr Christopher Bise talking about the ever-present threat of methane and the possible sources of ignition that could trigger an explosion:

[Miners are] very careful about open flames. But let’s say the mining machinery was ripping away at the coal seam and one of the bits happened to strike a rock and make a spark, like a boy scout starting a fire. Sparks occur. That’s why all the machinery has detectors on it. If the methane concentration gets above 1.5%, the detectors are supposed to automatically de-energize the equipment. But that’s not foolproof. You could get a rush of methane that happens too fast.

Pike River’s own internal investigations and potentially external, independent investigations will no doubt get to the bottom of what caused the massive explosion. In the meantime, a rescue effort unlike anything New Zealand has seen in decades is about to get underway. We can only hope its outcome is as inspiring and miraculous as that experienced by the Chilean miners who captured the world’s attention with their prolonged underground ordeal.

Singapore still the science all-star Peter Griffin Nov 18


UNESCO has just produced its report on science for 2010 and a brief chapter details the recent shake-up of the New Zealand science system with a number of graphs benchmarking us against our neighbours in the Asia Pacific region.

The report’s overwhelming theme is of an increased focus on science among emerging countries that is beginning to challenge the domination of the traditional “scientific triad” of the US, Japan and Europe, who have traditionally been the world leaders in research and development and scientific projects.

One of the big measures used in the report is gross domestic expenditure on R&D and on that count, China, India and Korea are raising Asia’s game:

Led mainly by China, India and the Republic of Korea, Asia’s share increased from 27 to 32% between 2002 and 2007. Over the same period, the three heavyweights, the European Union, USA and Japan, have registered a decrease. In 2002, almost 83% of research and development was carried out in developed countries; by 2007 this share had dropped to 76%. This trend is even clearer when industry’s contribution to GERD is considered. Between 2000 and 2007, the private sector share of R&D spending, as a proportion of GDP, saw a sharp increase in Japan, China, Singapore and especially the Republic of Korea, while it remained stable in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom and even saw a slight decrease in the Russian Federation and the USA.

In our part of the world – UNESCO includes New Zealand and Australia along with the Pacific islands in the same group as many nations of South East Asia, we are doing pretty well. New Zealand and Australia account for just five per cent of the population in the region, but nearly half of its total GDP. Traditionally the bulk of scientific expenditure comes from those two countries as well as the bulk of scientific output. But that is changing and at a swift pace, largely driven by Singapore and to a lesser extent Malaysia and Thailand. The table below gives some of our key measures against others in the region.

unesco table

Singapore’s science focus

Singapore’s investment in science has really paid off for the country according to UNESCO:

Singapore is one of the few countries in the region with a net inflow of scientific personnel, both from the region and from other scientifically advanced economies. There is growing evidence that Singapore is becoming central to global knowledge hubs in fields such as biomedical science and information technology (IT). A big challenge for Singapore will be to maintain the present inflow of human capital in order to underpin sustained knowledge-based development over the next decade, even as the rapid growth of the Indian and Chinese economies is stimulating demand for skilled personnel in these countries.

Singapore produces more patents than New Zealand and across the border in Malaysia, scientific developments are also gathering pace:

Malaysia registered less than half as many patents as New Zealand in 2001 but matched it by 2006 and moved ahead in 2007.

In that respect its good to see announcements like the one this week from New Zealand’s Health Research Council, that detailed a new scientific collaboration with Singapore. A $2 million joint fund has been set up by the HRC and Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research for cancer research. The money will fund joint research projects into breast cancer progression, ovarian cancer and liver tumours undertaken by researchers at the University of Otago and Singapore-based universities.

Science in from the cold

The UNESCO report picks up an increasing trend globally of governments looking to science to breathe new life into their economies – something that rings true here with Prime Minister John Key’s stated goal of putting science “at the heart of government”.

Science policy has shifted ground in terms of national development strategies. Science policy has been brought in from the cold to play a central role in innovation policies. This has quite significant long-term implications and carries with it policy management dilemmas.

Your science in seven words Peter Griffin Nov 02


UPDATED: The Running Hot conference for emerging researchers is underway in Wellington – follow updates via Twitter @smcnz. Last night kicked off with an interesting panel discussion moderated by Radio New Zealand’s science-friendly Nights host, Bryan Crump.

running hot

Crump quizzed three scientists on their areas of research, with included climate change, neuroscience and epigenetics. Before that, outgoing acting CEO Lesley Middleton from the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology put up a slightly disturbing slide that caused a lot of discussion among the gathered early-career researchers.

Here’s that diagram Lesley Presented H/T Dr Michael Edmonds for finding it in Igniting Potential. UPDATED: The Ministry of Research, Science and Technology has provided an updated version of the graph which shows only science-related PhDs. The previous version showed all PhDs – 14,148 of them…

career pathway

It showed using arrows of varying thickness illustrating what percentage of PhDs go where after university (if I can get hold of a copy of it I’ll post it). It showed that around 68 per cent of PhDs don’t continue on in research but disappear off into other sectors to do a myriad range of things. Only two per cent will advance through academia to eventually become professors. Many in the room felt the seemingly large exodus of PhDs from academia is a sign that there aren’t enough attractive opportunities in research in New Zealand for those seeking post-doc projects.

Middleton didn’t seem so concerned about it. She said what was more important were the “feedback loops” that saw PhDs going out into industry or Government coming back in contact with academia in some form of collaboration. Her message was that we need to boost this kind of public-private collaboration to make our country more innovative. Fair point, but there was lingering unease in the room at the massive grey arrow diverting 68.8 per cent of qualified PhDs out of research and into the ether.

Prior to that, myself and Science Media Centre colleague Dacia Herbulock again gave researchers tips on communicating their science. This time there was a bit of a twist – after getting researchers to describe their science in one or two sentences, we then got them to repeat the exercise, summing up their science in a maximum of seven words. Here are some of the results…

My personal favourite…

Is Facebook the new-age ‘virtual’ marae?

Some of the others:

Ways people heat and cool their homes

Telling the story of migration between western countries

Technology to help people with brain injuries

How do people have ethical sex

Stopping babies exploding

How we organise knowledge affects what is possible

Telling the stories of merino wool

Nanomaterials as high performance electronic devices

Understand the relationship between structure and function

I develop rehabilitation devices for stroke patients

I want to make a molecular dragon

Transporting people in resource-constrained cities

Torturing shellfish: Using stress to develop understanding

Are we what our mothers eat?

Mysteries of the deep sea.

Disasters: survival of the fittest?

Does earthquake risk influence tourist choices?

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