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4 minutes reading time (844 words)

Underwater Robotic Miners

Almost every day I find one or more science and technology articles that really catch my attention. David Hambling’s article about developing robots to do underwater mining certainly provides a good example (Hambling, 10/23/2017).

The problem that many mining operations face is that of water getting into a mine. The history of steam engines is intimately connected with this problem. Steam engines were first developed to pump water out of mines. Quoting from (n.d.):

The first steam-powered machine was built in 1698 by the English military engineer Thomas Savery (c. 1650-1715). His invention, designed to pump water out of coal mines, was known as the Miner's Friend.

A few years later, an English engineer and partner of Savery named Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729) improved the steam pump. He increased efficiency by setting a moving piston inside a cylinder, a technique still in use today.

Today, many of the minerals being mined are more deeply concentrated at greater depths, and water is a continuing problem. Throughout the world, a very large number of open pit mines were productive, but eventually closed because of the costs and dangers in maintaining them in production. Such mines soon become lakes.

Quoting from the Hambling article:

 [Underwater mining using robots is a] European Union-funded project called ¡VAMOS! for Viable Alternative Mine Operating System. The goal is to extract mineral resources from abandoned, flooded mine sites previously considered too dangerous or costly to access. If the demonstration here at Whitehill Yeo works, these robots will go global, producing raw materials without digging new mines, and minus the environmental or noise problems that plague traditional mining.

Open Pit Lake.png

Figure 1. Surface level equipment for underwater mining.

Suppose that this project proves successful. In the reopened mines, there will be no miners who work in the pit, facing the dangers and hardships of such work. The total number of employees in the operation will certainly be less than when the mine was previously being operated, and the skill sets of the employees will be different from those of the underground miners. Quoting again from the Hamblin article:

…drilling and blasting would become unnecessary. So would cooling at geothermal depths. And because separation of ore and rock is done on site, fewer trucks are needed to transport it for processing. The robot runs on swamp tracks on the floor of the lake, connected by an umbilicus to a small barge on the water’s surface. It [the underwater robotic machinery] crushes the minerals it finds and sends them as a slurry back up to the barge; after the water is removed from the slurry, it is returned to the flooded pit.

This approach even removes the toxic wastewater associated with mining.

Final Remarks
I have a number of different mental images of robots. For example, I really loved science books when I was a child, and the robots tended to be human-like in shape and operation. Then came factory automation, with factory production becoming more and more computerized. More recently, we have seen wide sales of computerized devices such as home vacuum cleaners.

The use of robots in industrial production is now rapidly expanding. Quoting from The Economist (The Data Team, 5/27/2017):

YOU may never have heard of FANUC, the world’s largest maker of industrial robots. But the chances are that you own a product built by one of its 400,000 machines. Established in 1956, the Japanese company’s automated workers build cars for Ford and Tesla, and metal iPhone cases for Apple.

The popular narrative about robots is that they are stealing human workers′ jobs. A new paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research broadly supports this belief, estimating that each additional robot in the American economy reduces employment by 5.6 workers.

We are now 60 years into the Information Age (Moursund, 2017). The pace of change is increasing.

What You Can Do
Many of the knowledge and skill sets needed for the jobs of the future are different from those needed in the past. Such knowledge and skill sets come from informal and formal education, including the full range of a person’s life experiences. People skills, problem-solving skills, adaptability and flexibility, becoming more responsible for one’s own learning, and being a life-long learner are all important (Moursund, 4/17/2017).

This observation applies to you, and to all of today’s children. Learning in school is far more than just learning specific content. It is also learning to learn, learning to be responsible for one’s own learning, and developing habits of mind that provide a foundation for lifelong learning.

References and Resources (n.d.). Steam engine. Retrieved 11/1/2017 from

Hambling, D. (10/23/2017). Robotic underwater miners can go where humans can’t. New Scientist. Retrieved 10/27/2017 from

Moursund, D. (2017). Information Age. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 11/1/2017 from

Moursund, D. (4/21/2017). Reading and writing in today’s world. IAE Blog. Retrieved 11/1/2017 from

Moursund, D. (4/17/2017). Education for the future: A special message for teachers. IAE Blog. Retrieved 11/1/2017 from

The Data Team (5/27/2017). The growth of industrial robots. The Economist. Retrieved 11/1/2017 from

Very Agile, Very Mobile Robots
Larry Cuban


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Friday, 03 December 2021

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