§ 4.8.3 Teleoperation and Automation for Mining
Mining is the most demanding application of automation and teleoperation.
Underground mines on Earth often require remote controlled equipment due to safety requirements and harsh conditions. Because of increasing safety standards in many countries, it has been suggested in studies by terrestrial equipment manufacturers that most terrestrial surface mining projects in the future could also be performed by remote control. Many already are.
Excavation and hauling operations on the Moon can be automated and teleoperated with remote control computers and personnel on Earth, since the communications round trip delay time is just 2.5 seconds. Experiments using college students showed that it takes a little while to get the hang of the 2.5 second delay, but after a short time people learn how to master the situation.
For asteroids, since round trip communications times could be on the order of minutes, there would need to be a high degree of automation, or else someone would need to be on-site for quick interactive tasks, in addition to maintenance and troubleshooting.
Both lunar and asteroidal mining missions will need someone on-site, as it's highly unlikely that any company would spend money on a mining venture without sending one or two people out with the equipment for unforseen troubleshooting and maintenance needs. These people can also serve as teleoperators.
As one NASA report on lunar mining puts it: "The haulers can undoubtedly be designed to operate in automatic mode, only requiring occasional reprogramming. Prior to mining, orbital photographs would document the topology in great detail. A family of haul roads would be selected and stored in each hauler's on-board computer memory. Using inertial guidance, radar, laser ranging, electronic guideposts, satellite tracking, or a combination thereof, the hauler could navigate back and forth from the mine according to a programmed sequence. Earth-based personnel would monitor the performance of the haulers and would have the capability to switch to remote control if necessary. The haulers could also be either remotely or manually controlled on the lunar surface."
The above is readily attainable with present day technology. In fact, popular childrens' toys have been sold which follow a number of programmed paths, and artificial intelligence has handled more complex problems.
All this would require a relatively small mass of electronic and communications equipment placed on the Moon. The lunar communications receiver, amplifier, transponder network and computer systems would be relatively lightweight.