Virginia Tech’s Holden Hall “mock mine” lets students work with minerals — Virginia

When Virginia Tech’s Holden Hall was being redesigned, Mining and Mineral Engineering Department Head Erik Westman believed his mining students deserved better conditions than the 1940 building could provide—conditions that would enhance his students’ ability to research, test and host robotics competitions.

In September, the Holden Hall 2.0 was unveiled. The $73.5 million renovated Holden Hall was 102,000 square feet of classrooms equipped with A/V, computing facilities, and high-tech labs—one of those labs is the Autonomous Mining Center, aka Mock Mine.

The two-story, 1,200-square-foot center features three rectangular pits, similar to sand pits on a playground, that enclose the lower level. On the outside of Holden Hall, a glass garage door leads directly into the center so that minerals can be dumped seamlessly into the pit, with the goal of simulating a real mine. The largest of the three pits is directly in front of the garage door, while two smaller pits are to the right of the largest pit. The pits are about four feet deep.

The second level features a glass area where students can observe tests being conducted within the mine site. One wall also houses a projector screen to display course information.

The Mock Mine is currently underutilized, but the plan is for students to conduct experiments and projects involving the operation and testing of autonomous mining equipment and drones to learn the fundamentals of robotics and sensors in the mining space.

“As the industry becomes more autonomous, with more robots involved, it’s important for our engineers to learn how it all works and even be able to write some Python [code] and make sense of the data collected,” Westman said.

Student groups such as Virginia Tech’s Astrobotics team, a group of students aiming to design an autonomous Mars mining bot that can extract water-bearing gravel, will use the space to prepare for their competitions, such as NASA’s Lunabotics Competition .

“For Astrobotics, we had to go to the volleyball court that was around campus and dig around in the sand in there,” said Justin Hartman, a senior and member of Virginia Tech Mining and Minerals Astrobotics engineering. “So just having a central indoor pit will allow us to test in all kinds of weather and we can actually start a standard procedure.”

Brennan George (from left), Hunter Stanley and Chris Keesee work to build a remotely operated vehicle for use at the new Virginia Tech Center for Autonomous Mining in the Department of Mining and Mineral Engineering. Photo by Tonia Moxley for Virginia Tech.

Throughout the year, students will work on different kinds of small robots, eventually building up to assembling a small truck at the end of the year.

Currently, “we have the tiny things, truck-wise,” said fifth-year Virginia Tech Mineral and Mining engineering senior Adam Guzauckas. “I’m interested in trying to make something a little bigger, actually trying to move gravel, because the stuff we have now can only move small glass beads on a table.”

Before Mock Mine, learning and testing in a real field would be difficult because students are potentially taking time, space and money away from an active 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 a real working mine, they have a business, they have employers to pay, so you can’t always get the conditions you need. Here, we can calm everything down and set the conditions we want without having to worry about everything going on in a working mine.”

Justin Hartman and Mason Tincher are working on building a remotely operated vehicle for the Data Analytics and Automated Systems class in the Mining and Minerals Engineering Department. The class met in the first-of-its-kind Center for Autonomous Mining in the newly renovated Holden Hall. Photo by Tonia Moxley for Virginia Tech.

Westman notes how the state of the mining industry has changed dramatically over the past 30 years, shifting from labor-intensive manual operations to digital processes. These digital, autonomous systems are used in machines, such as trucks, where they can be programmed to go from one point to another. This innovation provides the effective skills required in the industry.

Carter Machinery Company, a Southwest Virginia-based Caterpillar equipment dealer, serves mines throughout Southwest Virginia by selling autonomous and semi-autonomous construction equipment. Over the past five years, Carter and Virginia Tech have had a strong research relationship and plan to continue that relationship through collaborative research at the Mock Mine site. One of those research projects is bringing the autonomous traction fleet to the Appalachian region.

Tow trucks have been used successfully in places like Wyoming or Western Australia, places whose geographic features are more on the flat side. The mountainous terrain of Southwest Virginia makes these trucks more difficult to navigate. Operators must program the trucks to maneuver on narrow roads in gusty winds and must also ensure strong communication between operator and truck. Still, it’s a hurdle Carter and Virginia Tech intend to overcome in the next five years or so.

“From a Carter Machinery perspective, we have deep, deep relationships with Virginia Tech,” said Carter Machinery Performance Services Director Jason Threewitt. “Some of our very, very important customers that we have in our territory are focused on mining, quarries and aggregates. So it makes sense to be deeper, integrated and aligned with the mechanical mining division. Mining engineers coming out of this program will either go to work for one of our clients or come to work for us. So all the more reason why we should be walking side by side developing this kind of technology and making it happen.”

In addition, good equipment operators have been more difficult to recruit in the past two years, especially due to the decline in apprenticeships and skilled workforce training in schools, commercial construction and manufacturing not fully recovering from the global recession of 2008, and misunderstandings and trade stereotypes.

“It’s harder to hire good equipment managers,” Westman said. “So with the retirement of these specialists, there is this opportunity to bring in more advanced technologies.”

Carter Machinery Company has a technician apprenticeship program committed to training future engineers, electricians, 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 these occupations, that works really well,” Westman said. “We can definitely see this space being used to help them in their education.”

Along with Carter Machinery, entities such as Luxstone, Vulcan Materials and others will potentially partner with Virginia Tech to conduct research at the Mock Mine site. These collaborations will allow researchers to study a myriad of topics, including how to optimize production and how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Virginia Tech is also exploring opportunities between Mock Mine and one of their research projects, Evolve Central Appalachia (Evolve CAPP). This project aims to discover minerals critical to the green economy in central Appalachia and to see if mining such minerals is economically feasible. A research possibility between the entities is to use the Mock Mine as a lab-scale test facility for sensors to find minerals in rocks more efficiently.

“We are limited in critical minerals and heavy metals,” said Mike Quillen, president of the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority and chair of the recently announced Energy DELTA (Discovery, Education, Learning & Technology Accelerator) Lab. “If you look at the growth that is projected in the world over the next 20 years and how the world is trying to move towards renewable energy, the amount of these critical minerals that everyone will need, [the United States doesn’t] have them. We are nowhere in line to produce the size we will need in the next decade to 20 years.”

The Southwest Virginia region has repeatedly been identified 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, as is the region’s large electrical capacity, which can potentially be converted for energy infrastructure use.

The Quillen chairs organizations, the Energy DELTA Lab and the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority, aim to advance the development, commercialization and economic activity of energy infrastructure by conducting research such as testing the feasibility of using mine water for data cooling .

“Our primary goal is to use the history and the technology and the talent that has been here for centuries in the energy business to find ways to use that talent, create jobs in the new energy sectors and hopefully have them here,” Quillen said.

Quillen points out how research conducted at Virginia Tech’s Mock Mine will aid this effort through automation research, helping to improve the overall safety of mining these minerals and research to make automation mining more efficient.

“We have great relationships with universities and colleges that do theoretical research, medical research,” Quillen said. “[Energy DELTA Lab’s] the goal is to go to that next level to really take a lot of the knowledge that’s out there now and expand it into field practices and basically prove the economic viability. It’s not uncommon for researchers to have an idea, but when you look at it, it doesn’t pass the business model test because it’s not economical. We see ourselves as the second step in the process, this evolution into a new energy world.”