Two New Mexico Tech professors have landed a three-year, $617,213 research grant from the Alpha Foundation to demonstrate an intrinsically safe propulsion system to be used in underground coal mines.

Pedram Roghanchi, PhD, of the Mineral Engineering Department and Mostafa Hassanalian, PhD, of the Mechanical Engineering Department, are the principal investigators. Researchers from the University of New Mexico and the University of Texas at Arlington will collaborate with the NMT team on this interdisciplinary research.

Hassanalian, who has multiple research projects on the design and demonstration of drones for various applications, said the primary aim of the project was to design and develop an intrinsically safe drone for underground coal mining applications.

“Our challenge is that a drone should not be heavy in order to be able to complete different missions in an underground mine,” he said. “The design of a drone is not the main objective. The goal here to use our expertise to design a propulsion system for a drone that is permissible in the underground coal mines.”

The project includes funding for at least five graduate students, a research faculty, and numerous undergraduate students. The faculty team has sponsored a Senior Design Clinic team in the Mechanical Engineering Department to work on a design of a spherical drone for underground mining applications in the past two years.

“The concept is that if the drone touches the wall, it will remain safe,” Hassanalian said. “Also, the drones might be flying in the presence of mineworkers, so the encased structure will protect both the drone and the miners.”

Roghanchi and Hassanalian are currently looking for graduate students who are interested in the areas of drones, propulsion systems design, CFD, and optimization.

Roghanchi said the Alpha project has three overarching concerns: safety of miners, implementation of multiple applications, and reduced cost.

“Our goal is to improve mine safety. The industry has shown an increased interest in the use of drones. When it comes to underground coal mines, permissibility of the equipment is the main challenge,” he said. “However, we know that introducing drone technology to underground coal mining will significantly improve safety. Applications for the drones appear to countless. These include geologic surveys, safety inspections, ground control monitoring, air quality monitoring, and more.

“The cost of human inspection compared to autonomous systems – especially in the era of Big Data – is immense,” Roghanchi said. “Additionally, there are areas in mines that are hard-to-reach or unsafe for humans to access. The use of drone technology will be advantageous in these situations.”

The project kick-off date is next month.

Since its inception in 2013, the Alpha Foundation has awarded about 35 grants nationwide. This is the first award for New Mexico Tech.

The Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mine Safety and Health was established as part of a non-prosecution agreement in December 2011 in agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

This agreement was related to the explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine, an underground coal mine owned by Performance Coal Co., a former affiliate of Massey Energy Company, which Alpha acquired in June 2011, over a year following the UBB explosion.