Two people are shown here wearing fluorescent yellow vests and white hard hats. One is holding a controller. The second is holding a drone.

WVU engineers aim to improve safety with independent automated inspection system for waste coal storage facilities | WVU today

WVU researchers Guilherme Pereira and Ihsan Berk Tulu recently received nearly $500,000 to develop a robotic aerial inspection and monitoring system for abandoned coal waste storage facilities.
(WVU Photo/Paige Nesbit)

two West Virginia University Engineers are developing new technologies for waste coal storage facilities that will detect and prevent potential failures such as the release of hazardous materials into the environment.

Guilherme Pereiraassociate professor at Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Associate Professor at Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical EngineeringAnd the Ehsan Berk ToluWayne and Cathy Richards, faculty member and assistant professor Mining Engineeringhas secured nearly $500,000 in funding to conduct research that will provide an aerial robotic inspection and monitoring system for activated and abandoned coal ash and tailings or waste storage facilities.

The goal of the project is to find a way to detect leaks and failures in waste coal facilities before the tailings and coal ash are released into the environment. Tailings are waste residues after coal has been extracted from the ground that are stored above ground behind earthen dams, while coal ash is the residual residue from coal combustion in power plants. Coal ash is one of America’s largest supplies of industrial waste, as it contains minerals such as lead, mercury, chromium, selenium, cadmium and arsenic, which never degrade and are dangerous to humans.

“The failure of these structures has proven to be catastrophic, causing massive mudslides that devastated entire communities and created irreversible environmental damage,” Tolo said. “Industry, federal and state governments spend significant effort and time examining these structures, and finding risks that may lead to wastewater leakage or failure.”

Researchers will develop and program a smart drone that independently inspects the structural components of coal waste storage facilities. The drone will be able to create thermal and visual images, high-resolution and 3D maps of the facility, which will allow to detect cracks, distortions and other hazards in the structures.

The second goal of the project is to create and equip drones with software that uses artificial intelligence-based algorithms to detect potential risks. The software will collect and use thermal and optical images, as well as 3D raster clouds, a technology that uses laser scanners to measure where light reaches a specific surface or object, to create high-resolution 3D models of coal storage facilities. This will allow researchers to quickly and efficiently identify potential hazards without having to be physically present at the inspection site.

Funding comes from the US Department of Energy and is managed by the National Energy Technology Laboratory under the Fossil Energy and Carbon Management Undergraduate Training and Research Program. This funding will allow four students in Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources To work on this project and gain real-world experience with autonomous robotic inspection systems.

The research could provide a faster, long-term economic solution to this escalating global issue, a topic close to Pereira’s home.

“I am originally from Minas Gerais in Brazil, where there have been catastrophic accidents with tailings dams recently, so the project has a special motive for me,” said Pereira. “It’s an opportunity to develop a technology that could save lives in the United States and in my country.”

In 2015, a waste dam collapsed in Bento Rodrigues, Brazil, spilling thousands of pounds of dangerous mud that killed 19 people. The mining waste eventually flowed more than 400 miles from its source into the Atlantic Ocean, polluting the water supply along its path.

The heart-wrenching accident of West Virginia occurred in 1972, when a waste dam in Logan County failed in the aftermath of a heavy rainstorm, known as the Buffalo Creek Flood. This catastrophic dam collapse released 132 million gallons of wastewater into the surrounding community. The accident killed 125 people, injured 1,100 and left 4,000 people without homes.

“It’s a very exciting project for us,” Tolo said. “We will train the next generation of engineers to apply robotic technologies to our mining communities. The successful outcome of this project will be another technological tool for both West Virginia’s mining industries and states to improve mine safety and the health of neighboring communities.”


(b) / 09/20/22

Media contact: Jake Stamp
WVU Research Communications


Michaela Morissette
Communication Specialist
WVU Research Communications

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