Andrea Bartoli says mining safety systems need to talk to each other so they can deliver the best possible performance
Few would question whether mining operators today are committed to developing processes for a cleaner and safer industry. After tragic mining accidents in recent years caused untold damage not only to local communities but also to mining companies’ social license to operate, the industry has taken important steps to improve the way it protects workers and the environment.
Mining companies are rushing to deploy sophisticated automated monitoring systems that can help warn of potentially deadly changes in the mining environments. There is no doubt about the value of such systems. The financial or reputational damage arising from a mine collapse or tailings dam failure could far outweigh the cost of installing and maintaining the technology needed to detect problems beforehand. And mining operators are increasingly required to comply with national and international regulations to safeguard safety of workers and the environment.
Guaranteeing safe mining operations
But having a suite of advanced monitoring systems to choose from might not be enough to fully guarantee safety, and the presence of numerous technologies does not necessarily mean investing in them will produce a great return on investment. As it stands, the mining technology supply industry has done a great job of providing innovative products for specific monitoring tasks, but a poor job of tying them together into a single ecosystem.
The result is that mining companies can end up spending money on state-of-the-art monitoring products and yet still not get the full value from their investments. Even worse, a failure to integrate products can lead to added complexity and poor utilisation.
A prime example of the importance of appropriate mining technology
Take the case of a mine with five monitoring systems, each measuring a critical metric and each from a different vendor. Without an appropriate integration, the mining operator would have to monitor each system via a different interface and struggle with different operation modes and user experiences.
Few mining operations have the manpower to do this. And even those that do are unlikely to enjoy all the potential benefits of their technologies. Faced with diverse data sets and interfaces, there is a serious chance that critical signals could be missed. The obvious answer is to pull together all the data onto a single dashboard. But, again, few mining operators are likely to have the resources to carry out this integration work in house for each mine.
Changing environmental conditions and the impact on mining technology
And it’s important to bear in mind that integration implies more than simply merging different data streams onto a single interface. In tailings dams, for example, safety factors vary with time as a result of changing conditions that could be detected by correlating several technological inputs. Monitoring variations in particular characteristics, such as soil humidity or surface displacement, might provide some indication of emerging hazards but will not tell you the real safety factors of the infrastructure, both local and general. For that, you need to take, integrate and correlate new data and apply specific mathematical models for advanced analysis.
This means operators need to bring together different technologies, from sensors to software subsystems, and get them to work as a single package. A fully integrated system should not only be able to accommodate new sensor inputs on a plug-and-play basis, but also deliver the data in a ready-to-use format for simulation, advanced analysis, yielding clear, reliable insights that mining personnel can act on with confidence.
The mining technology supply chain is waking up to the need for such systems. This year, for example, Worldsensing and IDS GeoRadar launched the world’s first mine safety system to combine surface, sub-surface and geospatial monitoring in a single package. It exploits Worldsensing’s Loadsensing internet-of-things-based technology, integrated with IDS GeoRadar technology, using an HxGN GeoMonitoring Hub as a data visualisation and analysis platform.
Worldsensing’s industrial IoT technology relies on wireless network capabilities to collect, communicate and process surface and subsurface sensor data and monitor critical mining infrastructure.
IDS GeoRadar, meanwhile, provides surface monitoring with ground-based synthetic aperture radar (GB-SAR) technology, which is routinely used to support mining staff in the management of geotechnical risks. GB-SAR has emerged as a key tool for monitoring purposes in mining and IDS GeoRadar is a major player in this application and technology system.
This integration of technologies means that mining firms can now use a single system to monitor a wide range of wirelessly connected geotechnical, structural and environmental sensors plus interferometric synthetic aperture radar data.
The development is important for two reasons. The first is that ‘integration’ in this case is not just a case of stitching together two different technologies. Instead, engineers from both companies worked together to make sure the two companies’ products could work together seamlessly.
The second is that this is not expected to be a unique announcement, but the first of many. Both companies are committed to extending the scope and range of their product integrations, and other mining technology vendors are certain to follow suit.
More extensive integration capabilities will not only improve safety but also cut costs and improve efficiency for mining operations. Studies show using Internet of Things technologies for safety monitoring can be 55% cheaper than manual methods, over five years. That’s a powerful argument for working together.
Andrea Bartoli is with Worldsensing