The Real Deal30 November 2007 Dr Gareth Evans
Wi-Fi tagging and tracking is leading the revolution in an industry where safety and efficiency are essential. Dr Gareth Evans looks at the latest real-time technologies to enhance the mining industry, both for personnel and for equipment.
As the evolving market for real-time location systems (RTLS) gears up for a rapid expansion in global value – predicted to make an 80-fold increase over five years, to exceed $1.6bn by 2010 – industries are being presented with ever more innovative technologies and applications.
There are many drivers on the uptake of what has been termed the 'strategic' use of dedicated wireless local area networks (WLANs), but the single most compelling across the board is its potential facilitation of applications which promise enhanced efficiency and profitability. For many industries, the ability to keep track of mobile and fixed assets, as well as key personnel, centrally and in real time, offers significant benefits, not least being the optimisation of resources allocation – which can have a major bottom line impact.
Unsurprisingly, although the RTLS sector is still new and relatively unexplored, it seems certain that it will play an important part in shaping strategic WLAN in a number of industries over the coming years. Mining is no exception.
Mine operators have an extended record of willingness to embrace automation and technology, especially where such moves offer measurable financial returns. A variety of approaches ranging from simple radio frequency identification (RFID) systems to more complex applications, such as the Minicom/Caterpillar product and MineStar, are already well established.
The traditional mainstay of such RFID applications involves locating misplaced trucks, drills and similar items; a radio tag on the equipment transmits a signal which underground receivers detect, allowing the system to display its position.
At the other end of the scale, MineStar, developed with the help of a $5.23m grant from the Australian Government, offers an integrated information system, collecting data in real time and transmitting it via WLAN. As well as keeping track of fleet and materials, there are component modules designed to manage production work, monitor vehicle maintenance, schedule hauling and integrate the information provided with core business systems to improve overall mine management.
While the idea is not new – real-time tracking grew alongside the emerging WLAN technology in the 1990s and MineStar was officially launched at MINExpo 2000 – the market for RTLS remains one which is still forming.
Ongoing developments and the rise of new applications are inevitable, partly as a result of technological advances and partly as the needs of end-users change in response to a shifting commercial and regulatory climate.
In September 2007, for example, Mobilize released their new Megs1.5 web portal, allowing any fixed or mobile asset to be monitored remotely from a single platform. The system claims to offer a total solution to allowing easy tracking, viewing and troubleshooting in real time. Unsurprisingly, web-based technologies have come to feature increasingly in a growing range of these applications.
Earlier in the year, CVRD Inc, a Toronto-based, wholly owned subsidiary of Brazilian mining company CVRD, began using a voice over internet protocol (VOIP) communication system in some parts of its mines. The company is also currently implementing a wider initiative to provide underground workings with Wi-Fi access points for communication, asset tracking and automation, as well as installing RFID asset-tracking from Ekahau at the Stobie and North mines in Sudbury, Ontario.
The potential applications for real-time monitoring systems go some way beyond simply mapping the whereabouts of 'misplaced' vehicles or equipment. Early versions merely indicated a position by plotting it on a computer-generated map, allowing workers to be subsequently detailed to recover the missing items. However, more sophisticated locationing applications can be piggy-backed on the same basic infrastructure, including enabling workers already underground to find them using VOIP or voice over Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi), or autonomously using auto-alerts to Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs.
Evidently, not having the right piece of equipment in place when it is needed slows production and being able to find it quickly and accurately can make an operation considerably more efficient, but the technology has more to offer than this. So-called 'choke-point' applications, for instance, which track the passage of assets through the mine, open up wide possibilities for improving process control, monitoring workflow and the elimination of many opportunities for misplacement in the first instance. This new series of RTLS applications opens the way for a shift from simple inventory and reporting functions to their development as true management tools in their own right.
AeroScout – another pioneer of Wi-Fi positioning – offers perhaps the most notable solution in this particular arena. The AeroScout Exciter is a specialised radio transmitter component of system hardware which interacts with active RFID tags which approach it, triggering a signal to be sent to the network, registering the proximity of the particular tag to that Exciter.
Simple though this is, it unlocks the door to a wide range of potential applications. It becomes possible, for instance, to track individual assets very precisely and therefore analyse where they spend the bulk of their time, how quickly they are redeployed in operation and how effectively they are being used. In the same way, bottlenecks can be identified, opening the way for potential changes in procedure to eliminate them.
The technology also allows defined areas to be made electronically 'off-limits' to particular vehicles or tools – ensuring they do not end up somewhere they do not belong. It can also allow alerts to be triggered which will initiate emails, text, voice messages or make changes to a web portal, while embedded functions permit the Exciter to store data on the tag for later use.
The subsequent transmission of this information can be triggered by other Exciters at different locations, enabling sophisticated process control functions to be realised. As Joshua Slobin, AeroScout's marketing manager, observes, these moves are changing the focus from "simply determining location to taking that location data and turning it into something really usable."
THE SAFETY ANGLE
Tracking machinery is one thing, but as recent events such as the tragic accident at Crandall Canyon in the summer of 2007 have reinforced, the need to be able to locate trapped miners swiftly and accurately is something altogether different. The proliferation of Wi-Fi in mines around the world provides increasingly standardised wireless networks, which make the perfect infrastructure for personnel tracking functions and help keep the costs down – particularly where a mine already has a WLAN installed.
Although the issue of mine safety has resonance across the world, in many respects the current focus is mainly on the US, where radio and location systems have historically been fairly uncommon. However, this is set to change in the wake of the Sago mine disaster, which in January 2006 claimed the lives of 12 West Virginia coal miners after they became trapped by an explosion.
Under the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006, America's mine companies have three years to install two-way communications and wireless systems to keep above-ground personnel aware of a miner's location at all times.
An unprecedented surge of orders await RTLS suppliers – a line-up including Active Control Technology, MineCom, Mine Radio Systems, Mine Site Technologies, Varis Mine Technology and Venture Design in addition to AeroScout and Ekahau.
There is scepticism in some mining quarters over the practicality of deploying miner tracking. Certainly, no system can ensure entirely fail-safe operation under all the conditions possible deep underground. Nevertheless, even allowing for the general difficulties of the mine environment and the destructive nature of rock-falls, it remains clear that any form of tracking is better than none at all, and the field is continually improving.
While some location tags do little more than provide a radio beacon, later versions can receive signals sent from a central control portal and respond by buzzing or flashing – making helmet-mounted RFID devices ideal for alerting workers to potential danger. Such functions can also dovetail well with choke-point technology.
With two-way enabled tags trapped miners can raise the alarm directly, allowing their location to be displayed instantly. Moreover, with tags now able to access the internet via nodes on the local network, they can communicate directly with location servers anywhere, making remote monitoring by web portal increasingly practical and further extending the potential uses of mine-based Wi-Fi.
However, such moves seem likely to be only the beginning. In May 2007, iPackets successfully demonstrated its Mine-1-1 system – designed to provide real-time tracking and monitoring of miners, with two-way voice and data communication – at a Brooks Run Mining Company coal mine in Cowen, West Virginia. What made this event stand out was the fact that the demonstration was viewed live, via satellite uplink, by representatives of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, sitting 50 miles away in their offices in Beckley.
Safety and efficiency have always made compelling drivers for any mining operation, so the rise of real-time surveillance technologies and their increasingly innovative applications to track work and workers plays to a natural constituency. With the promise of effective monitoring of even the remotest of locations becoming a technical reality, it is small wonder that the sector is tipped for continued growth.