The Chilean and Pike River Mine disasters in 2010 highlighted the dangers of sub-surface mining and the difficulties faced in extracting those trapped beneath the Earth. Collapsed mines pose countless dangers, not just for those trapped but also those attempting to free them, such as poisonous gases, flooded tunnels, explosive vapors and unstable walls and roofs. Dealing with such potentially deadly conditions and unknown obstacles significantly slows the efforts of rescuers. To help speed rescue efforts, robotics engineers at Sandia Labs have designed a robot to provide that most valuable of commodities for first responders - information.

Built from the ground up to negotiate nearly every known mine hazard, the Gemini-Scout Mine Rescue Robot is less than four feet (1.2 m) long and two feet (0.6 m) tall and is nimble enough to navigate around tight corners and over safety hatches a foot (0.3 m) high. With its waterproof equipment, the robot can maneuver through 18 inches (45 cm) of water, yet is lightweight enough to crawl over boulders and rubble piles and strong enough to withstand the pressures found underground.

The Gemini-Scout is equipped with gas sensors, a thermal camera to locate survivors and another higher mounted pan-and-tilt camera to spot obstacles. With mines potentially containing methane and other gases that can ignite if exposed to sparks, the robot's electronics are housed in casings designed to withstand an explosion.

"Such measures would prevent a spark from causing further destruction. While it might harm the robot, it wouldn't create another dangerous situation for the miners or rescuers," said Jon Salton, Sandia engineer and project manager.

In addition to moving into potentially dangerous areas ahead of rescuers to help plan operations, the Gemini-Scout can also haul food, air packs and medicine to those trapped underground. It is also equipped with two-way radios and can be configured to drag survivors to safety.

The robot is guided by remote control and to make the control system as intuitive and easy to learn as possible, the engineers used an Xbox 360 game controller.

"We focused a lot on usability and copied a lot of gamer interfaces so that users can pick it up pretty quickly," said Sandia engineer Justin Garretson, the lead software developer.

Sandia Labs engineers are demonstrating the Gemini-Scout until the 18th of August at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Unmanned Systems North America 2011, which is currently taking place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

"We anticipate that this technology is broad enough to be appealing to other first responders, such as police, firefighters and medical personnel," Salton said. "Gemini-Scout could easily be fitted to handle earthquake and fire scenarios, and we think this could provide real relief in currently inaccessible situations."