When Virginia Tech’s Holden Hall was being redesigned, Erik Westman, department head of mining and mineral engineering, believed his mining students deserved better conditions than the 1940 building could offer—conditions that would improve his students’ ability to research robotics competitions , test and align.
Holden Hall 2.0 was unveiled in September. The $73.5 million refurbished Holden Hall included 102,000 square feet of A/V-equipped classrooms, high-tech computing facilities and laboratories – one of those laboratories was the Center for Autonomous Mining, also known as Mock Mine.
The 1,200-square-foot, two-story center features three rectangular pits, much like sandboxes in a playground, that comprise the lowest level. On the outside of Holden Hall, a glass garage door leads straight into the center, allowing minerals to be dumped seamlessly into the pit, with the aim of simulating a real mine. The largest of the three pits is directly in front of the garage door, with two smaller pits to the right of the larger pit. The pits are about four feet deep.
On the second level is a glass-enclosed area where students can observe the tests being conducted in the mine room. One wall also houses a projection screen to display information for the classroom.
The Mock Mine is currently in minimal use, but there are plans for students to conduct experiments and projects dealing with the operation and testing of autonomous mining equipment and drones to learn the basics of robotics and sensors in the mining space.
“As the industry becomes more autonomous and involves more robots, it’s important for our engineers to learn how all of this works and even be able to write Python [code] and understand the data collected,” said Westman.
Student groups like Virginia Tech’s Astrobotics team, a team of students aiming to design an autonomous Mars mining bot capable of extracting hydrous gravel, will use the space to focus on their competitions how to prepare NASA’s Lunabotics competition.
“For Astrobotics, we used to have to go to the volleyball court that was all over campus and dig around in the sand there,” said Justin Hartman, Virginia Tech Mining and Minerals Engineering senior and Astrobotics member. “So if we just have a central indoor pit, we can do all-weather testing, and we can actually get a standard procedure going.”
Throughout the year, students will work on different types of small robots and eventually assemble a small truck at the end of the year.
Right now, “we have the tiny stuff as far as trucks go,” said Adam Guzauckas, a fifth-year senior with Virginia Tech Mineral and Mining Engineering. “I’m interested in building something bigger, actually trying to move gravel, because the stuff we have now can only move small glass beads on a table.”
Before the mock mine, learning and testing in a real field was difficult as students would potentially take away the time, space and money of an actively operated mine. The mine would allow for an accessible testing environment.
“It’s needed so we can test things in a controlled landscape situation,” Westman said. “If you go to an actual operating mine, they’re running a business, they have to pay employers, so you don’t always get the terms you need. Here we can calm everything down and set the conditions we want without having to worry about everything that happens in a running mine.”
Westman notes how the state of the mining industry has changed dramatically over the past 30 years, shifting from manual, labor-intensive jobs to digital processes. These digital, autonomous systems are used in machines like trucks, where they can be programmed to drive from one point to another. This innovation provides the efficient skills needed in the industry.
Carter Machinery Company, a Southwest Virginia-based Caterpillar equipment dealer, serves mines throughout Southwest Virginia by selling them autonomous and semi-autonomous construction equipment. Carter and Virginia Tech have had a close research relationship for the past five years and plan to continue this relationship through joint research on the mock mine. One of these research projects is bringing the autonomous transport fleet to the Appalachia region.
Transporters have been used successfully in places like Wyoming or Western Australia, places whose geographic features tend to be flat. The mountainous terrain of Southwest Virginia makes these trucks more difficult to navigate; Operators must program the trucks to maneuver through narrow, winding roads, and they must also ensure strong communication between operator and truck. However, it’s an obstacle that Carter and Virginia Tech hope to overcome over the next five years or so.
“From a Carter Machinery perspective, we have deep, close relationships with Virginia Tech,” said Jason Threewitts, manager of Carter Machinery Performance Services. “Some of our key customers that we have in our area are focused on mining, quarrying and aggregates. So it just makes sense to be deeper, embedded and aligned with the mining engineering department. The mining engineers that come out of this program will either work for one of our customers or work for us. All the more reason why we should walk side by side to develop this kind of technology and make it a reality.”
In addition, it has been more difficult to hire good equipment managers in recent years, particularly due to the reduction in apprenticeships and the training of skilled workers in schools, commercial construction and manufacturing that have not fully recovered from the 2008 global recession, as well as misunderstandings and stereotypes about the trade.
“It’s harder to hire good equipment managers,” Westman said. “So, as these experts retire, there’s an opportunity to bring in more advanced technologies.”
The Carter Machinery Company has a technician training program dedicated to training future mechanics, electricians and equipment operators, and Westman and Threewitts see the potential of using Mock Mine for this program.
“[Students in the program] go to community colleges, get an education, and then work in those jobs, that works really well,” Westman said. “We can definitely see that space being used to train them.”
In addition to Carter Machinery, companies such as Luxstone, Vulcan Materials and others may be collaborating with Virginia Tech to conduct research at the mock mine. These collaborations will allow researchers to study a variety of topics, including how to optimize production and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Virginia Tech is also exploring opportunities between Mock Mine and one of its research projects, Evolve Central Appalachia (Evolve CAPP). This project aims to discover critical minerals for the green economy in central Appalachian Mountains and to see if mining such minerals is economically feasible. One research opportunity between the units is to use Mock Mine as a laboratory-scale testing facility for sensors to more effectively find minerals in rocks.
“We have limited critical minerals and heavy metals,” said Mike Quillen, chairman of the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority and chairman of the newly announced Energy DELTA (Discovery, Education, Learning & Technology Accelerator) Lab. “If you look at the projected growth of the world over the next 20 years and as the world tries to transition to renewable energy, the amount of these critical minerals everyone will need, [the United States doesn’t] got her. We are nowhere near able to produce at the scale that we will need in the next 10 to 20 years.”
The Southwest Virginia region has been repeatedly nominated as a potential breeding ground for the energy industry. The region’s rich coal mining past means that infrastructure, land and labor are already in place, such as B. the region’s large electricity capacity, which can potentially be converted to use the energy infrastructure.
The organizations guiding Quillen, the Energy DELTA Lab and the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority, aim to promote the development, commercialization and commercial activity of energy infrastructure by conducting research such as: B. testing the feasibility of using mine water for data cooling.
“Our main goal is to use the history, the technology and the talent that has been here in the energy business for centuries to find ways to use that talent, create jobs in the new energy spaces and hopefully have them here” said Quillen.
Quillen notes how the research being conducted at Virginia Tech’s Mock Mine will support these efforts through their automation research, helping to improve the overall safety of mining these minerals, and research to make automated mining more efficient.
“We have great relationships with the universities and colleges that do theoretical research and medical research,” Quillen said. “[Energy DELTA Lab’s] The goal is to go to the next level to actually take a lot of what’s out there now and expand it to practical practices and basically prove the commercial viability. It’s not uncommon for researchers to have an idea, but when you look at it, it fails the business model test because it’s not economics. We see ourselves as the second step in this process, this development towards a new energy world.”