Fans of the movie Prometheus will recall the probes that were sent into the alien structure, autonomously flying through it to create a 3D map of its interior. Well, something kind of similar is now in development, in the form of an underwater robot that maps the flooded tunnels of abandoned mines.

Created via the European Union UNEXMI project, the spherical UX-1 Robotic Explorer is equipped with five digital cameras and rotating laser line projectors, which it will use to produce three-dimensional maps of European mine tunnels as it autonomously "swims" through them. Propulsion is provided by recessed thrusters, powered by a lithium battery that should ultimately be good for up to five hours of runtime per charge.

Many of the mines were abandoned not because they ran out of minerals, but instead due to technological or economical challenges that may now be surmountable. With that in mind, the robot is also equipped with a multispectral camera, a gamma radiation detector, and a water sampling system, all of which it will use to search for remaining mineral deposits. If substantial deposits are found, the mine could conceivably be pumped out and reopened.

Due to the fact that some of the mines were abandoned up to a century ago, after which they naturally filled with groundwater, maps that were previously made of their tunnels may no longer be accurate – for one thing, they won't indicate features such as cave-ins. Sending divers in to map the tunnels would be highly risky, on the other hand, while pumping the water out and then looking for minerals wouldn't be very cost-effective.

The UX-1 has already been tested in mines located in Finland, Slovenia, Portugal and the UK. That said, there is still some work to be done before it can enter practical use exploring more of the approximately 30,000 closed mines throughout Europe.

"From a technological point of view, this project is facing three main challenges," says team member Prof. Claudio Rossi, from Spain's Centre for Automation and Robotics. "The first one is to build a robot which is able to work in real underwater environments [down] to 500 meters [1,640 ft] … The second challenge is to achieve autonomous navigation in unknown environment, since there is no communication with the outside, and finally, the third challenge is to develop ad-hoc scientific instrumentation to assess the geophysical information."

A field test of the robot, in which it's remotely-controlled within a flooded British mine, can be seen in the video below.

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