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Underwater mining is already possible with Portuguese engineering

13th December 2018

The largest vehicle is a 25 tonnes robot with the ability to cut rocks and to pump the extracted materials back to the surface, while also being equipped with a hydraulic arm with interchangeable tools. The smallest one, known as EVA, moves around the mining site, constantly updating a 3D map of the area and transmitting this mapping to the largest vehicle in order to assist the navigation. The EVA robot was created by Portuguese researchers from the Institute for Systems and Computer Engineering, Technology and Science (INESC TEC), as well as all the sensory systems that allow the navigation and the operation of the 25 tonnes robot.

These robots were developed under the European project VAMOS! (Viable Alternative Mine Operating System), which has a budget higher than EUR 12 million and which was funded with EUR 9.2 million by the European Commission's Horizon 2020 programme, aims at exploring underwater landmines. 

“EVA is able to operate underwater for about seven hours, and only at the end of that period it’s necessary to change the three 1 kilowatt batteries, a process that takes five minutes. The robot has the ability to descend to about 500 metres of depth, but some sensors that are part of EVA already have the ability to descend to 3 000 metres, being easily adapted in order to be capable of descending, in the short term, to up to 1000 metres of depth”, explains José Miguel Almeida, coordinating researcher of INESC TEC’s Centre for Robotics and Autonomous Systems and Professor at the School of Engineering of Porto (ISEP).

The two robots use multiple sensors for the high accuracy navigation and positioning, as well as for the observation of the surroundings. Therefore, they combine the information from sonars, cameras and a laser telemeter that allows the operation of the system, wherever they are and under any visibility conditions. The collected data, after being processed and combined, are sent to a pilot in the control centre who is able to see them on a multi-screen console in a virtual reality environment. A future version can also be able to see the type and the concentrations of ore as it’s being mined, thus allowing to continue the exploration of the richest ore and to stop the investment in the poorest one. This information is provided by the classification and evaluation system of ore, being done by laser induced plasma spectroscopy, which has also been developed by INESC TEC's researchers, more precisely from the Institute's Centre for Applied Photonics.

Even though this consortium is composed of 17 partners from nine European countries, the main institutions responsible for the development of these robots were essentially five: SMD (United Kingdom), BMT (United Kingdom), DAMEN (the Netherlands), INESC TEC (Portugal) and SANDVIK (Germany).

After being successfully tested for almost two months in Ireland, the EVA robot is currently at INESC TEC’S Laboratory for Robotics and Autonomous Systems, located at ISEP’s premises.

“The robot that we developed represents the eyes of this system. When mining starts at the bottom of a lake, the amount of residues in suspension and the water turbidity significantly increase. In that regard, only with a system like EVA is it possible to maintain the ongoing operations and an updated map of the condition of the lake's bottom part, even for security reasons of the largest machine”, explains the researcher.

The tests of this robotic system in the flooded mine of Magcobar in Silvermines lasted for two months. According to José Miguel Almeida, “VAMOS was one of the most demanding projects in which we participated. For two months, we mobilised research teams to be in mining environment, day after day. Briefings started at seven a.m. and the robotic system couldn’t stop until the end of the day, so our level of readiness had to be high, something that is completely contrary to the normal operation of a research process. Achieving the collaboration between multidisciplinary teams composed by elements from several industrial partners with different methodologies, as well as research institutes and other academics with different backgrounds and interests, was a learning process. What happened in Ireland was unique in this area”.

Seventeen heavy goods vehicles were necessary in order to transport all of the VAMOS' system, including the 25 tonnes robot, the barge and the control centre. The entire operation took several months just to prepare all of the logistic aspects. After nearly two months of testing, there was space for two public demonstrations. Eighty-five people participated in these demonstrations, ranging from members of the 17 partners that are part of the project, to geologists and researchers from companies and institutions external to the consortium and even to local population.

The operations consisted in the cutting and operation of the material in several situations, subsequently pumping the cut material into a repository located on land for a later evaluation and characterisation of the efficiency of the process.

The researcher from INESC TEC explains the importance of this type of projects for the European Commission: "the European Commission's concern when investing in this type of projects is mainly related to the dependency on the external in order to obtain raw materials that are key to the industries and how to explore the resources that it holds. Even though the majority of the mines, at the time that they were closed, weren't economically viable, the truth is most of them holds great quantities of raw materials which, with the results of this project, may become profitable once again”. Nowadays, the European Union consumes 25 to 35% of the metal produced worldwide, while the mineral extraction in Europe only amounts to 3% of the worldwide production of ore, which means that the EU imports about 200 million tonnes of minerals per year.

VAMOS, which lasted for four years, is almost coming to an end and there is already an expression of interest in transferring technologies like EVA and the navigation and mapping systems to the market.

"If there is indeed an interest in transferring EVA to the market, then it's going to be necessary to adapt the prototype into a product, which will make it necessary to standardise the operations in order for anyone, whether a specialist or not, to be able to operate the robot", concludes José Miguel Almeida.

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Joana Coelho

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