This Robotic Mining Car Never Stops Hauling

The demand for minerals is skyrocketing—not just for rare earths like neodymium, europium, and cerium used in the iPhone 5, but phosphorous and coal too. As that demand rises, miners must dig deeper into the ground. But the lower they go, the more dangerous the job becomes—71 miners died in 2010 in the US alone. This automated mineral transportation train, however could boost mining production without jeopardizing lives.

Traditionally, ore is brought up from the depths of the Earth by either huge loaders and trucks or on conveyor belts, both of which require humans on hand to operate (which means wider and taller tunnels must be built), and neither are particularly energy efficient. The Rail Veyor Transportation System, however, employs a unique mix of these two technologies to deliver a device more efficient than either.

Built by Canadian equipment manufacturer Rail-veyor Technologies Global Inc, the Rail Veyor is an electrically driven, remotely operated, light-rail tram. Each train consists of a four-wheeled lead car followed by a series of interconnected, two-wheeled cars (using just two wheels affords the train a tighter turning radius). By employing a pair of these trains working in tandem, they can continuously port materials to the surface. An added benefit is that the cars' small profile and low weight allow them to work in tighter spaces—mine shaft diameters as small as eight feet or roughly half that of typical shafts—and require less ground preparation to install than say, what a 50-ton dump truck would.

The Rail Veyor's propulsion system consists of a pair of drive stations as well as a series of monitoring sensors along the track. These propulsors are able to accelerate the rail cars up to 32km/h from a dead stop within seconds and climb 20 percent inclines under full load. What's more, they do this at a fraction of the environmental cost that conventional diesel-powered conveyor systems do and they do it without any direct human intervention. In fact, the entire hauling process is overseen by a single operator located safely on the surface.

The Rail Veyor is a relatively new development for the mining industry, it is already being used around the world. Vale SA, a Brazilian mining conglomerate has spent $50 million to install the system in a nickel mine in Sudbury, Ontario. The system has already halved the time it takes to dig a mine and is expected to boost production by 150 percent.

"As we go deeper, if we continue to apply existing thinking and existing technologies, it's a death spiral" in terms of profits, Alex Henderson, head of Vale's Sudbury technology team, told Reuters. "We need to begin to look at a step-change in mining rather than just incrementally improving our existing processes." [Reuters - Florida Institute of Phosphate Research - Railveyor - CNet - Image: Michigan Tech University]