Robby, the robot miner.

Things could have been different in West Virginia last week.  People did not have to die to keep the cheap power flowing to the insatiable American consumer.  Coal mining has always been a dangerous profession, and a life in the mines usually means suffering from Black Lung disease the last years of life.  If one does not die in an explosion, flood, cave-in, or fire.

The technology exists to allow the miners to work in relative safety, connected to robot miners via virtual reality goggles and gloves, with control consoles for moving the robots around, monitoring vital functions, and communication with other miners.  People would probably still have to go underground, so that the links to the robots would not be too long, but they would not have to be exposed to the coal dust, methane, and physical risks associated with working coal.

The robots would not look anything like a human being, probably being mounted on a tracked carriage, with an upper body that could rotate, lean, and handle heavy weights.  Cameras would be the eyes, microphones the ears, and a large, heavy arm with interchangeable ‘hands’,  which could telescope out away from the robot a short distance.

Power would be supplied by cables, with an emergency battery back up for evacuating an area after a power failure.  Hey, these things are going to be expensive, so you don’t want to leave them at risk, if at all possible.  In order to be able to work in an explosive atmosphere, the motors and moving parts would have to be sealed airtight, which is a good idea to allow surviving flooding as well.

Not every task could be completed by a robotic miner, so humans will still be needed to climb down into the bowels of the earth, but robots could easily replace 75 percent of the humans working a mine, without putting those workers out of a job.  Their job would just be different, controlling a machine deeper in the mine.

Once a design is adequately developed, mass production could begin, which would bring the cost of each robot down considerably.  The Mine Safety and Health Administration has been unable to insure that profits do not take priority over safety, so, instead of trying to change the companies that own and operate the mines, they should be given the tools needed to make safety less expensive.

Of course, if the companies owned the mining robots, they might be more willing to keep the mines safe, to protect their investment.

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