The road to MINExpo: Sensing an improvement in mining safety and productivity

What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word ‘sensor’?

Is it the lights that turn on in your yard when you take out the trash? Or the doors that slide open when visiting your local grocery store?

You may not realize it, but sensors are found almost everywhere, including mining operations. Sensors are being used to detect everything from slope stability to operator fatigue and distraction.

In an industry that strives to be safer by preventing accidents, sensor technology plays a pivotal role in the pursuit of zero harm.

While culture, change management, processes and workflows all contribute to the broader spectrum of safety within the industry, it is technology that will be essential to achieving zero harm. Culture and processes will see it adopted effectively.

Hexagon will reveal its newest technology for mining’s autonomous future at MINExpo, Sept. 13-15. However, the sensor technology powering our autonomous solutions is already helping miners make better decisions and conduct their jobs safely amid the daily grind of an operation.

Sensor technology has proved to be invaluable in helping to reduce the risk of accidents in busy mines.

Sensors and autonomy

Mining technology is evolving rapidly. The last 20 years have seen mining companies embrace technological innovation to improve productivity and safety. The two can go hand in hand, if treated right. Accelerating technology adoption is the advent of automation, but automation technology pieces need not be just for automation.

If we break down the technology stack for an autonomous vehicle, for example, it is interesting to see what each of the technologies are and how can they be used or leveraged in a non-autonomous operation.

Vehicle intervention systems help to ensure that accidents are avoided when the operator fails to respond to a collision alert.

A good place to start is EMESRT, (Earth Moving Equipment Safety Round Table) a global initiative involving major mining companies. EMESRT engages with key mining industry Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to advance the design of the equipment to improve safe operability and maintainability.

The group has been integral to categorizing levels of control for vehicle interaction risks, guiding how these risks can be managed from technology design to implementation. While these measures have helped operators to take better decisions and avoid accidents, they have also accelerated the use of technology to semi-autonomously intervene in certain risk situations, removing the human factor.

Levels 7 to 9 on safety illustrate technology’s evolution in the last five to 10 years. Thanks to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) and the variety of sensors becoming available, mines can now select a wide range of solutions to address the main control scenarios proposed by EMESRT.

This is where sensor technology comes into play. In the mining environment, we know that change is constant.

Sensors detect events or changes in the environment and can transmit this information to other electronics. Global positioning systems, LiDar, cameras and radar are giving mines the ability to monitor the status of equipment, personnel and activities.

While each of these sensors provides significant value to the end user in the mining operation, the real power comes when we can fuse the various outputs together, leveraging each of their strengths and adopting different technologies to hide their weaknesses. By combining GPS, LiDar, cameras and radar, a solution gains complete situational awareness in the majority of environments. To achieve this, an enormous amount of processing power is needed along with in-depth knowledge of the core technology stacks and clearly defined outcomes of what is being sought.

Autonomous Connected Ecosystems, aka ACE

By autonomous connected ecosystem, we mean a series of interconnected technologies enabling an autonomous operation. For example, an autonomous load and haul ecosystem comprises autonomous, semi-autonomous, and manned haul trucks, loading units, auxiliary equipment, light vehicles, people, haulage networks, loading and dumping areas.

Increasingly, advanced technology is connecting sensors for safety and productivity solutions. Technology vendors and solution providers are working together to improve the decision-making process and the workflows of multiple solutions across the safety and production spectrum.

ACE sees one solution in a specific process connecting automatically to a notification or an action in another solution, thus improving safety and/or productivity. For example, a collision avoidance system connects to a slope monitoring system, thus alerting the operator to both the risk of a vehicle incident and the threat of imminent slope failure. In either case, the operator is empowered to act.

Utilizing data from multiple sensors and integrated solutions is increasingly leading towards simple and consolidated hardware architecture, sometimes known as the Smart Device Ecosystem (SDE). Installed in vehicles, an SDE means one set of components to deliver multiple solutions.

For example, in the same antenna, computing box, perception sensors and display, a mine could deploy multiple solutions for fleet management, collision awareness and avoidance, spotting assist, fatigue management, machine control and machine and asset health. Not only can all of this be confined to a single unit, decluttering the cabin, but it also reduces maintenance and capex investment.

Sensor technology is changing how mines operate. As mines become more automated, the ecosystems created will rely more on sensors to provide information and protect people.

With MINExpo around the corner, we look forward to displaying some of our newest advancements in sensor technology. This event marks the convergence of our solutions across portfolios and confirmation of Hexagon’s position as the industry’s life-of-mine, smart technology provider.

One partner. For the life of your mine.

For more, read my Hazardex article, where we cover sensor technology in greater depth. Don’t forget to read part 1 and part 2 and of our Road to MINExpo series.

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