TR: What will it take to deploy rescue robots?
RW: All the things that help any technology develop: market forces, political pressure, humanitarian impulses, and teams committed to the challenge. Five years ago the technologies would not have been competent for or capable of mine mapping; but after Quecreek there was a motivation for progress. The great strides in mine mapping since then are powered by resources that were a response to what was viewed as a shortfall – a need. It didn’t just come to pass that old pencil-drawn maps of mines were digitized, it became a necessity. There was a political, business, and humanitarian impulse at work that led to the creation and deployment of robotics to map mines, to promote the safety and health of the people in the mines.
After Sago, the charter might be for capabilities to enter mines robotically in accident conditions and traverse and obtain information and get to trapped miners and deliver what’s needed to them.
TR: Do you think that will happen?
RW: Twenty years ago this would all have been science fiction; but now it is a matter of integrating all the existing systems. Robots are now a tool of the trade for bomb squads. Ten years ago we wouldn’t have been talking about that as a reality. So the issue is no longer whether the technology will work, but of culture, policy, economics, and initiative. Every technology has to earn its keep – it’s not an entitlement. I believe that mine rescue response is one application where robots would inevitably make good sense.
TR: You grew up in coal country. What was your reaction when you learned of the Sago disaster?
RW: Any time I hear about a mine accident my first reaction is human and my thoughts are related to hope for the wellbeing of the people. My work is heavily motivated by my own background as a Pennsylvania native who grew up near the Quecreek mine. But mining accidents and incidents are not unique to any corner of the world – entrapments and natural disasters are world issues, not backyard issues.