Robots create hands-on feeling for remote mine operators

In the old days, miners would take a canary down to work with them in the mine shaft. If the canary died, the miners knew that they’d soon be next if they didn’t make a run for it. Canaries were a good indicator of pending disaster.

But canaries can’t do algorithms

In the mine shafts of the future, it will be robots not canaries that act as sentinels for safety. They’ll also be programmed to support or carry out other aspects of mining operations, while human operators stay safely positioned in remote stations above ground. But in the absence of any warm blooded beings below, how will remote operators be able to get a hands-on feeling of what’s going on? In order for mining operations to remain robust, efficient and safe, these remote operators can’t just be observers. They must partake in the operations, and with different senses in play.

A sense of sight can be achieved with various types of remote camera visualizations, although it’s still not easy for operators in the absence of 3D or stereoscopic view. But what about the other senses? Robots need to give feedback to the extent that remote operators feel just like being there on the spot with the remote machine.

Putting all the senses in play

An operator using a subterranean robot to drill holes in rock face may be able to experience a sense of touch, for example, through haptic feedback on the remote controllers. That means being able to feel how solid the rock is and adjust speed or strength accordingly. If the rock were to get too hard for the drilling equipment, it could create all kinds of unwanted safety repercussions and the need for expensive repairs.

shutterstock_132947174A sense of hearing as well as a sense of smell would also be useful, for example, to analyze machine motor sounds and underground explosions or events where gas leaks or burning are indicators of pending disaster. In the former case, auditory feedback is rather easy to implement with microphones, speakers and deliberate sound design. But in the latter case, instead of direct olfactory, or sense of smell, feedback, applicable sensors need to be able to detect suspicious alterations in air quality and alarm operators in other ways.

We recently visited a mining and technology conference in Toronto where many of the presenters and participants were using buzzwords like IoT, Industry 4.0, augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), user experience and autonomous systems. However, during the breaks, most conceded that the mining industry still has some way to go before these tech trends could be applied to deliver value.

How can VTT help?

In a rather different kind of environment to mines, VTT, together with Tampere University, has developed a Remote Operation and Virtual Reality Center (ROViR) in Tampere, Finland to support remote operation and maintenance simulations for one of the world’s most challenging energy projects, based in the South of France, called ITER – in Latin, meaning ‘the way’.

As with mineshafts, no warm-blooded beings will be able to enter the ITER facility once it’s up and running. That means all maintenance will have to be carried out by smart robots, equipped with sensors for dealing with every possible scenario.

Finding the way with ITER

So far at ROViR, VTT has achieved high success in simulating ITER remote maintenance operations, many of which can be applied to other sectors. For example, VTT has honed the use of a transport robot to move a ten-tonne reactor cassette along a desired route with an accuracy of plus or minus 1 mm.

As well as supporting ITER, one of the aims of our design work with ROViR has been to find new ways for remote operators to achieve a sense of control. And many of these solutions can be directly applied to mining. For example, using VR/AR to help operators better understand spatial dimensions, such as distances among elements; applying ecological interface design for safety-critical control room monitoring user interfaces; or using AR video feeds to highlight crucial objects in remote work areas.

Our InnoLeap concept design approach has been developed to push radical new concepts into the industrial workplace. Backed by the experience gained from this concept design work with ROViR center, we’re now well positioned to provide numerous applications for other industries, especially the mining sector. That means collaborating with mining companies to go deep into the remote operators’ user experience. Using our task-analysis methods, we can explore what remote mining operators will need to do and know in order to be successful in their work tasks, both in abnormal and normal situations.

Canary or no canary, remote operators in the mines of the future won’t succeed by just winging it.

For more information, please visit:

Hannu Karvonen
Research Scientist, VTT



Mikael Wahlström
Senior Scientist, VTT



Will robots make us better persons?

How will our society change as artificial intelligence and robotics develop? To what kind of new humanity will robotics liberate us? Will the added value brought by robots be available for the well-to-do only? We must start discussing ethics of new technology before this technology becomes an integral part of our everyday lives. The essential thing is to keep posing questions, even if there were no answers to be found right away.

Often it is even more essential to keep posing questions than finding answers to them. This is true at least when faced with ethical questions. Ethical questions related to the use and instilling of technology require asking questions, consideration and debate from versatile perspectives and at different levels. This is particularly important, when we are in the process of pushing people whose voice is not always very clearly heard in our society to use technology: those living in the margins of our society. They need us others, who might be able to give them a voice through our own deliberations.

Very seldom ethical consideration of matters reaches a fruitful level if they are discussed between own team members or colleagues only; Establishing a wider perspective requires views from various angles and stakeholders.

Ethical technology and many-voiced approach

I ran a workshop that VTT organised in collaboration with RoboBisnes operators, or the North Karelia Municipal Education and Training Consortium and Karelia University of Applied Sciences. With a group of 40 people, we spent a whole afternoon delving deep into the opportunities offered and the concerns raised by robotics and artificial intelligence. We sought perspectives, for example, from the everyday lives of older people and the mentally disabled.

Ari Tarkiainen, Project Manager at Karelia University of Applied Sciences, made an important observation at the session: “In a way, ethics is kind of an inherent part of new technology, since new applications and opportunities produce a lot of situations of which we have no previous experience. It is also descriptive of the current situation that such new situations have not been taken into account in legislation and no practices have been established for managing them. Therefore, ethical questions should be strongly highlighted all the time. VTT has been acting as a key expert and developer in this collaboration between ethics and technology”.

Technology is not black and white

Even though universal ethical values guide us to consider what is good and bad, or right and wrong, technology is never black and white. When we listen to each other – and also really hear what is being said – the border between black and white begins to waver and we begin to see bright colours and different shades of grey. In the hum of voices (and North Karelians are known for being eager to talk!), the values shared by most of us find a fairly comprehensible form within the Finnish framework.

After a while, that clarity fades away, when we keep on examining these values from a multicultural perspective:

  • Which values can take us forward?
  • What creates trust in society?
  • What kind of fringe areas does digitisation create, and who live in these fringes?
  • To what kind of new humanity would technology going beyond our thinking capacity liberate us?
  • Why does technology sometimes raise issues of insecurity and vulnerability regardless of the fact that it also opens up new enchanting paths in our everyday lives.
  • What is the ethical thread that will last until the end?

When discussing these questions, and going forwards and backwards, we came up with some positive visions of robotics. “Robots enable easy-to-use user interfaces and increase digital inclusion. Maybe, with the help of ugly robots, we also learn to accept the different appearances of people. It is great that robots do not know how to have tantrums! I could quite easily trust them with all cleaning duties.” Some female participants were also of the opinion that, luckily, robots are quite advanced, unlike human males, which are still being developed in the right direction in many households. Tears were running down people’s cheeks with laughter, and there was room for all kinds of opinions at the session venue, near the Joensuu market place.

Talking and laughing together, sharing our common experiences, does good to us people. That is something a robot is unlikely to be capable of any time soon. But robots can liberate us of from many dull tasks to having the kind of ‘quality time’ together as described above.

We will organise more similar workshops in the future. Consideration of the borders and framework conditions of humanity is important, and right now, in the middle of major changes, it is particularly important.



Jaana Leikas
Principal Scientist, VTT
Cell: +358 407 500 211

Service robotics for the aid of senior citizens – user-oriented joint development is the key

Picture: Kari Välimäki

Picture: Kari Välimäki

The accelerating development of service robotics has raised expectations and hopes that robotics could be utilised to support the elderly in independent living at home and renew care and welfare services. Three VTT projects of 2.5 million euros  are creating a vision of robotics and other intelligent technology helping the elderly to live at their homes and community homes healthy and hale for longer, and how the work of a nurse will change in 20 to 30 years.

Sceptical attitudes towards care robotics are acknowledged, but practical trials and studies show increasing interest. The elderly are unlikely to shun robotics technology if it helps them manage everyday chores on their own, makes them feel safe, and keeps them in touch with social networks and participation in the community. Nurses will also be happy to utilise robotics that give them extra strength to perform their work that is physically strenuous, constantly changing, and demands problem-solving, negotiation and clinical assessments. User-oriented co-development is key for feasible and acceptable robotics applications.

A toy or a service robot for someone with a memory disorder?

Today’s service robotics are still far from a real integration in the everyday lives of the elderly or the use of nurses. Network connections stutter, speech recognition stumbles, movement is cumbersome, and perception of objects and space is challenging.

As surprising as it is, the world’s most commercially successful care robot is probably the robot seal Paro, developed for the therapy of people with memory disorders. Some of the elderly truly find meaning in petting an interactive seal – for those with memory disorders, feeling good at the very moment is important, and that Paro can offer. For the nurses, Paro offers the means of indulging oneself in a shared experience and gentle interaction with the elderly. Paro enriches the quality of life and interaction of people with memory disorders, and alleviates anxiety and restlessness. Although many consider the Paro to be a toy, it is a genuinely user-oriented robot designed for a purpose, although its adoption will be significantly reduced by its high price of thousands of euros.

Service robotics will revolutionise both everyday and working lives

As technological components and software improve and prices decrease, more and more versatile robotics consumer applications are to be expected for everyday use, caretaking and other service industries. The expectations of the health and care services are high for robotics applications, exoskeletons, “power arms” and lifting & carrying robots that provide physical support and strength. In Japan, the promised land of robotics, the renting of these kinds of applications to care facilities and home care is becoming an everyday commercial occurance.

Various monitoring, alarm and safety solutions are being developed to support living at home for the elderly. Sensors could be installed throughout the home, thus securing the welfare of the elderly, but would it be more pleasant if the “guardian” were a robot, a visible object, that could also help perform small chores, bring and take things, and act as a game partner or a newsreader, for example?

Nao the service robot

Nao the service robot

Socially interacting robots are peculiar in that people begin to grow fond of them. As the speech interface develops and the interaction becomes more multifaceted, particularly with regard to reading and showing non-verbal communication, expressions, gestures and emotional reactions, it is likely that people will begin to feel some kind of social connection to their robots. This development is perplexing the researchers, as it is difficult to anticipate whether this would lead to a reduction in human contact. In the case of the elderly, this is even considered to be a human rights issue.

Some researchers consider it to be unethical to allow the elderly to become attached to a robot that is, however, unable to reciprocate those feelings or be aware of them – a robot is incapable of genuine empathy that arises from similar experience between two human individuals, who do not even need to know each other beforehand. True, a robot can appear to be able to do this, and this is sufficient for many, as socialising with a robot is perceived to be pleasant and useful. One must remember, however, that the individual wills of different personalities and the crises and growth arising from the difficulty of fitting them together form a key element in interaction between humans. Do we wish to fully control our robot, eliminating the growth in the interaction that brings psychological satisfaction – for which there are also social and communal needs – or do we give the robot a will of its own? This question may come up if robots with advanced interaction abilities are allowed to enter our everyday lives in an uncontrolled manner.

Service robotics will revolutionise the everyday and working lives, first following the models familiar from the industry as tools that make work and tasks more efficient and automated, but later as increasingly equal working partners and, finally, as part of a socially reorganised working life. The duties and job descriptions at work will change. It is impossible to say what role robotics will play in  society even after just ten years, but if we wish to have any influence in it, we should start considering the matter now. Robotics, the Internet of Things, big data and other radical technologies will create opportunities of reinventing the everyday life, welfare services and the working life.

However, these technologies will not integrate with the reinvention of welfare services on their own; the technologies and services must be developed together. VTT’s ace in the hole in the development of service robotics and the promotion of its adoption is its strong, user-oriented and responsible research methodology, and joint development with the interested parties from a technology into acceptable and effective solutions.

Marketta Niemelä

Senior Scientist