Chris Keesee (from left), Hunter Stanley, and Brennan George make adjustments to a remote operated vehicle for testing in the Virginia Tech Center for Autonomous Mining. The project is part of a data analytics and autonomous systems class offered by the Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering. Photo by Tonia Moxley for Virginia Tech
Chris Keesee (from left), Hunter Stanley, and Brennan George make adjustments to a remote operated vehicle for testing in the Virginia Tech Center for Autonomous Mining. The project is part of a data analytics and autonomous systems class offered by the Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering. Photo by Tonia Moxley for Virginia Tech

When Virginia Tech’s Holden Hall was being redesigned, Mining and Minerals Engineering department head Erik Westman believed his mining students deserved better conditions than what the 1940 building could offer — conditions that would enhance his students’ ability to research, test and host robotics competitions.

In September, Holden Hall 2.0 was unveiled. The $73.5 million renovated Holden Hall was 102,000 square feet of A/V-equipped classrooms, high-tech computational facilities and labs — one of these labs being the Center for Autonomous Mining, also known as the Mock Mine. 

The 1,200-square-foot, two-story center features three rectangular pits, similar to sand pits on a playground, which encompass the bottom level. On the outside of Holden Hall, a glass garage door leads directly to the center so minerals can be dumped seamlessly into the pit, with the goal to simulate a real mine. The largest of the three pits lies directly in front of the garage door, while two smaller pits are laid to the right of the larger pit. The pits are around four feet deep. 

The second level holds a glassed-in area, where students can observe tests being conducted within the mine space. A wall also hosts a projector screen to display information for lessons.

The Mock Mine is being used minimally right now, but the plan is for students to conduct experiments and projects dealing with operating and testing autonomous mining equipment and drones to learn the fundamentals of robotics and sensors within the mining space. 

“As the industry becomes more autonomous, with more robots involved, it’s important for our engineers to learn how all of that works and even to be able to write some Python [code] and understand the data collected,” said Westman. 

Student groups like Virginia Tech’s Astrobotics team, a team of students aiming to design an autonomous Mars mining bot that is able to extract water-containing gravel, will use the space to prepare for their competitions, such as the NASA Lunabotics Competition.

“For Astrobotics, we used to have to go to the volleyball pit that was all around campus and dig around the sand in there, ” said Justin Hartman, Virginia Tech Mining and Minerals engineering Senior and Astrobotics member. “So, just having a centralized indoor pit will allow us to have tests in all kinds of weather, and we can actually get a standard procedure going.”

Brennan George (from left), Hunter Stanley, and Chris Keesee work to construct a remote-operated vehicle for use in the new Virginia Tech Center for Autonomous Mining in the Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering. Photo by Tonia Moxley for Virginia Tech.

Throughout the year, students will work on different kinds of small robots, eventually working up to assembling a small haul truck at the end of the year.

Currently, “we have the tiny stuff, truck wise, ” said Virginia Tech Mineral and Mining engineering fifth-year senior Adam Guzauckas. “I’m interested in trying to build something a little bigger, actually trying to move gravel, ’cause the stuff we have now can only move little glass beads at a table.”

Prior to the Mock Mine, learning and testing in a real field would be difficult due to students potentially taking up time, space and money of an active operating mine. The mine would allow for an accessible testing environment.

“It’s needed so we can test things out in a controlled landscape situation,” Westman said. “If you go to an actual operating mine, they’re running a business, they have employers to pay, so you can’t always get the conditions you need. Here, we can quiet everything down and set the conditions that we want without having to worry about everything that occurs at an operating mine.”

Justin Hartman and Mason Tincher work on constructing a remote-operated vehicle for their data analytics and automated systems class in the Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering. The class met in the first-of-its-kind Center for Autonomous Mining in the newly renovated Holden Hall. Photo by Tonia Moxley for Virginia Tech.

Westman notes how the state of the mining industry has changed dramatically over the past 30 years, shifting from manual, labor-intensive jobs to digital procedures. These digital, autonomic systems are used in machinery, such as haul trucks, where they can be programmed to go from one point to another. This innovation provides the efficient skills needed within the industry.

Carter Machinery Company, a Southwest Virginia-based Caterpillar equipment dealer, serves mines throughout Southwest Virginia by selling them autonomous and semi-autonomous construction equipment. Throughout the past five years, Carter and Virginia Tech have had a strong research relationship and plan to continue this relationship through collaborative research in the Mock Mine space. One of these research projects is bringing the autonomous haul fleet to the Appalachian region. 

Haul trucks have successfully been used in places such as Wyoming or Western Australia, places whose geographical features run more on the flat side. The mountainous terrain of Southwest Virginia makes it more difficult to navigate these trucks; operators have to program the trucks to maneuver through narrow, windy roads and also have to ensure strong communication between the operator and truck. However, it’s an obstacle Carter and Virginia Tech aim to overcome in the next five years or so.

“From a Carter machinery perspective, we’ve got deep, deep ties with Virginia Tech,” said Carter Machinery Performance Services Manager Jason Threewitts. “Some of our very, most important customers that we have in our territory are centered around mining and quarries and aggregates. So it just makes sense to be deeper, embedded, and aligned with the mining engineering department. The mining engineers that are coming out of that program, they’re either going to go work for one of our customers, or they’re going to come work for us.  So all the more reason why we should be walking side by side developing this kind of technology and making it a reality.”

Additionally, good equipment managers have been harder to hire over the past couple of years, especially because of the scaling down of apprenticeships and skilled labor education in schools, commercial construction and manufacturing not completely recovering from the 2008 global recession, and misunderstandings and stereotypes about the trade. 

“It’s harder to hire good equipment managers,” Westman said. “So with these experts retiring, there is this opportunity to bring more advanced technologies.”

Carter Machinery Company has a technician apprenticeship program that is committed to training future mechanics, electricians, equipment operators, and Westman and Threewitts see the potential of using Mock Mine for this program.

“[Students in the program] go to community colleges, get training and then they work in those trades, that works really well,” Westman said. “We can definitely see this space being used to help train them.”

Alongside Carter Machinery, entities such as Luxstone, Vulcan Materials and more will potentially collaborate with Virginia Tech to conduct research in the Mock Mine space. These collaborations will allow researchers to study a myriad of topics, including looking at how to optimize production and how to lower greenhouse gas emissions. 

Virginia Tech is also exploring opportunities between Mock Mine and one of their research projects, Evolve Central Appalachia (Evolve CAPP). This project aims to discover critical minerals for the green economy within central Appalachia and to see if mining such minerals are economically feasible. One research possibility between the entities is using Mock Mine as a lab-scale test facility for sensors to find minerals in rocks more effectively. 

“We’re limited in critical minerals and heavy metals,  ” said Mike Quillen, chair of the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority and chair of the newly announced Energy DELTA (Discovery, Education, Learning & Technology Accelerator) Lab. “If you look at the growth projected in the world over the next 20 years and how the world is trying to move to renewables, the amount of these critical minerals that everybody’s going to need, [the United States doesn’t] have them. We’re nowhere near in line to produce the magnitude that we’re going to need over the next decade to 20 years.”

The Southwest Virginia region has repeatedly been nominated as a potential energy industry breeding ground. The region’s rich coal mining past means infrastructure, land and labor are already present, such as the region’s large electricity capacity, that can potentially be transitioned for the use of the energy infrastructure. 

The organizations Quillen chairs, the Energy DELTA Lab and Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority, aim to promote the development, commercialization and economic activity of energy infrastructure by conducting research such as testing the feasibility of using mine water for data cooling

“Our primary goal is to one, use the history and the technology and the talent that’s been here from being in the energy business for centuries to find ways to use that talent, to create jobs in the new energy fields, and hopefully have them here,” Quillen said. 

Quillen points out how the research conducted in Virginia Tech’s Mock Mine will help this effort through their automation research, helping to improve the overall safety of mining these minerals, and research to make automation mining more efficient. 

“We’ve got great relationships with the universities and colleges that do theoretical research, medical research, ” Quillen said. “[Energy DELTA Lab’s] goal is to go to that next level to actually take a lot of what knowledge is out there now and expand it to in-the-field practices and basically prove out the economic viability. It’s not uncommon for researchers to have an idea but when you look at it, it doesn’t pass the business model test because it’s not economics. We look at ourselves as being the second step in the process, this evolution to a new energy world.”

Adiah Gholston

Adiah Gholston is a writer based in Blacksburg. She can be reached at