A safer battery to power drones in underground mines

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David Wetz, professor of electrical engineering

An electrical engineering professor at The University of Texas at Arlington is helping develop a safer battery to power drones used to inspect mines for hazards.

David Wetz is part of a team working to design a battery that is intrinsically safe because it cannot cause sparking, a danger in mines filled with hazardous, explosive gases.

New Mexico Tech is the lead institution on the grant, which is funded by the Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mine Safety and Health Inc. The University of New Mexico is also a partner on the team. UTA’s share is $178,000.

Wetz is an expert in energy storage and has done extensive research into why batteries fail. He is working to design the battery to meet required power and energy demands, as well as a composite frame structure to house it and other electrical components. The entire system must meet strict safety requirements outlined by the U.S. Mining Safety Hazard Authority.

“Batteries, motors and other electronic parts can spark, so everything has to be safely enclosed so that no sparks can escape,” he said. “Building a rugged enclosure adds weight to the drone, so there is a balance in how to safely contain any potential problems and ensure that the battery doesn’t become excessively large to maintain the flight time of the drone. Together, our team will investigate the design of a composite structure that will make the drone explosion-proof should anything go wrong.”

Drones are increasingly used in all phases of mining operations—including site exploration and inspection, operations and safety checks—because they can offer a bird’s-eye view of the site and keep people out of harm’s way. Operating drones in dark, confined spaces is a challenge, and maintaining strict safety protocols is paramount, given the difficulty in fighting underground fires.

“I’m enthusiastic about our contributions to the vigorous growth of alternative energy sources and unmanned vehicle systems,” said Diana Huffaker, chair of UTA’s Electrical Engineering Department. “The fact that Dr. Wetz is merging the two to make a sparkless electrical system that will allow drones to inspect mines is unique and exciting.”

The Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mine Safety and Health Inc. was established in 2011 after an explosion at Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia. As part of the agreement, Alpha established a trust to fund projects designed to improve mine health and safety.

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