General Question

ftp901's avatar

Is it not possible do mining without sending people into the earth?

Asked by ftp901 (1300points) April 5th, 2010

Has anyone here worked in or know anything about working in mines?

After seeing hundreds of stories over the years about miner’s getting trapped in mines (the latest today is in West Virginia), I’ve often been mystified about why actual human beings have to go into the earth.

Since there is such a high probability that they won’t come out, I’m always surprised that this madness still goes on. I can understand why people had to go into mines 100 years ago but, in today’s world, I would think it would be possible to send a machine or robot into mines that could be operated remotely, no?

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23 Answers

Lightning's avatar

Robot miners are expensive.

Keysha's avatar

I would think the cost would be prohibitive. As far as using the accidents as a reason, well, look how many die in car crashes. Shouldn’t we ban cars and find a better way, like making them walk?

Captain_Fantasy's avatar

I think you might be over estimating the current abilities of 21st century robotics.

chyna's avatar

I live in WV. This happens all too frequently. There has to be a safer way to mine, but they apparently haven’t found it yet.

davidbetterman's avatar

Don’t forget the recent mine problem in China…

But why would you want to put all those miners out of work?

SeventhSense's avatar

What about the mole people? They can really wreak havoc on the drills.

davidbetterman's avatar

@SeventhSense Yes, and what about the Morlocks?!

wonderingwhy's avatar

strip mining, open pit, mountain top removal but those methods have issues of their own and cost (more litigation due to environmental and health issues) may make them prohibitive, depending on the area/goals, even if they were to be employed.

ftp901's avatar

@Captain_Fantasy Hmmm…I think I do that alot. In my head everything seems possible. If we can send spaceships to another planet, it seems completely preposterous to me that we can’t drill a hole in the earth and send a machine into it that has some ability to maneouver.

I have this same experience when I see things like the iPad being promoted – it seems crazy to me that it didn’t already exist (like 10 years ago). I’m surprised the iPad is something that anyone would want & I guess I would have assumed that the reason it wasn’t already on sale 10 years ago is that there wasn’t a need in the market (not because we didn’t have the technology).

I guess my question is actually: what is it that the humans are doing down there? Why are the human’s needed? Are they turning a crank? Are they pushing buttons on the machines? are they drilling things themselves?

ftp901's avatar


“There has to be a safer way to mine, but they apparently haven’t found it yet.”

See, that’s the part that confuddles me. I’m sure that there is a safer way to mine & I’m sure that someone knows about it, but there must be some financial reason they aren’t using it. It must be more economical to lose humans than machines.

When these miners die, don’t they pay out tons of money to their families? I guess it isn’t enough to make the costs outway the benefits.

SeventhSense's avatar

Oh yes of course. They’re a terror

wonderingwhy's avatar

@ftp901 I guess my question is actually: what is it that the humans are doing down there? Why are the human’s needed? Are they turning a crank? Are they pushing buttons on the machines? are they drilling things themselves?

I don’t know what they’re actually doing and it’s too late for me to do any real mine research (I’m guessing they’re operating the equipment and keeping everything running), but I think it’s very safe to say if there was a cheaper (legal) way the companies would be using it. Massey pulled 1.2 million tons of coal out of that mine alone last year, I’m guessing that’s more than enough to cover the death benefit payouts. Though at least the safety has been improving.

chyna's avatar

@ftp901 Yes, they pay out tons of money to the families of the deceased miners, but in this case, Massey Coal who owns this mine has tons of money.

davidbetterman's avatar

@SeventhSense Just don’t forget to bring some matches when you travel to the future!

ftp901's avatar

@wonderingwhy – you mean if I had asked the question this morning you would have been willing to do some mine research?

SeventhSense's avatar

Sad to say but I think that the first response is the real reason. It’s probably just the bottom line. The risk assessment of an unmanned droid over the insurance policy of a miner. Which is probably nothing and they assume all the risk. Whereas a robot could cost a million bucks and be unproven.
Better question still, why are we still burning coal?

ftp901's avatar

@SeventhSense – yes, I wonder that too. Over the last few years I’ve watched these mine disasters more closely, particularly this one:

and I’m always stunned and fascinated that humans actually do this job in this day in age when it can be so easily stopped in favor of other energy sources.

If people don’t want to stop using coal for environmental reasons then the fact that it would immediately save people’s lives seems like it would be enough of a reason.

The more I learn about the conditions of mining (not just the chance of dying but the actual day to day difficult drudgery of it – like breathing in coal dust), it seems absolutely insane to me that we would allow this to continue just so that we can turn on the lights.

SeventhSense's avatar

It has to be a horrible death as well. To be trapped in a pocket and slowly die.

iam2smart99037's avatar

They can make mining machines that are remote controlled, but as lightning said, too expensive.

Fenris's avatar

@ftp901 : they still need people in mines because qualitative abstraction, fuzzy logic, and moment’s notice decision-making aren’t in the realm of AI. the topography and stability of a subterranean strip-mine can change drastically from foot to foot and minute to minute. And yes, the labor of about 40 or 50 men is still cheaper than most of the huge, custom-manufactured machines they put down there, which go into the tens of millions. You’re vastly overestimating AI capacity of today. And though there are disasters, consider the fact that they are by far the exception to what is normally along string of safe days in the mines, just like everything. Load bearing and sub-t topography have gotten better by leaps and bounds, but it still takes a human brain to make it all go.

And we’re still burning coal because instantaneous rerouting of techno-economic inertia is impossible, and is proportionally slower to the amount of complexity with its relationship with the rest of the economy and world.
I find this to be an interesting document that outlines some of the concepts of inertia as an economic and technological force:

Nullo's avatar

Unless I’m mistaken (I’ll check with a mining engineer that I know), modern mining is largely automated.
If you had a billion or so for R&D, you could probably create a remotely-piloted mining vehicle. You will lose production.

iam2smart99037's avatar

@Fenris – That’s just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo that fighter pilots use to try and prove they are not obsolete, which they very much are. I don’t care what the situation is, an unmanned F-22 will always, always, always, destroy a manned F-22 first. Except for things like playing musical instruments, machines can do just about everything better, especially a simple job like mining. You don’t have to use AI to run a mining operation. It’s straightforward work that robots can easily do. It all comes down to the bottom line.

SeventhSense's avatar

Interesting article although I just skimmed over it. Yet as much as a consideration of why we still burn fossil fuels it may be as equal an hypothesis as to why we are not utilizing technology and still favoring manpower.
As a side note my business utilizes pressure cleaning equipment and there is definitely at times a foot dragging and delaying of purchasing new advances. And even at times, strangely enough, knowing this will improve my bottom line. But inevitably, I have never purchased a piece of power equipment that didn’t in short order pay for itself and make me more money. It seems to be a trait of human nature to resist change and the march of time. Perhaps it’s a philosophical one and raises the fear of our own mortality and subsequent obsolescence. We also seem to value the tried and true with a certain Romanticism whether it be a hand woven rug or hand rolled bagel. I guess regardless of our machines we are still human.

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