By Heidi Levitt
The resource industry is very competitive. To run a business at peak efficiency in a highly competitive environment, managers and operators need timely and accurate data. Waiting for month-end or quarterly reports, and the subsequent interpretation and reaction time, simply is not acceptable as it potentially places companies at a serious competitive disadvantage.

Real time data has become a standard in the industry. And it drives directly to the bottom line.

Mining is in the midst of a major change where technology can inform shift supervisors, maintenance foremen and mine managers of key statistics on staff and equipment allowing immediate adjustments for efficiency and safety. For example, if a 360-ton haul truck is only carrying 350 tons (short by 2.7%), team leaders have the ability to quickly find out why and make changes so subsequent loads are full. It’s virtually instantaneous and allows problems to be fixed before they show up in the financial statement. Make no mistake; a 2.7% reduction in load capacity on a regular basis will have a direct impact on the bottom line.

The haul truck example simply demonstrates the type of equipment that can be monitored effectively and where adjustments can quickly lead to improved results. However, any piece of equipment underground or on the surface can provide important data. All primary equipment manufacturers capture some sort of data. It could be engine statistics, tire pressure, load cells, etc. These are all valuable. The challenge is to provide the most pertinent information to a shift supervisor, maintenance foreman or mine manager so that quick action can be taken.

Network Requirements
Many mines currently have some sort of data network available. To have real impact, that network needs to be highly available, scalable and have the capacity to easily carry the data load.

More and more, mines are moving toward Wi-Fi networks that have a combination of fiber and wireless networks. The fiber network provides the “big pipe” for data. The wireless network allows data to be collected quickly and anywhere that work is being performed. The advantage of a Wi-Fi network is that it operates on an 802.11 open standard that provides the flexibility for companies to choose solutions from various manufacturers. Voice and text communications, tracking solutions for employees and assets, access control, and wireless video conferencing are some of the options that can be used on a Wi-Fi network.

One manufacturer has designed equipment specifically for targeted applications. In coal, longwall shearers have had a Wi-Fi node added to the shearer itself. This node has the ability to send information to small nodes on the pan line or under the shields. They send it out to the surface through wireless and fiber based nodes. The manufacturer has worked very closely with the shearer and shield vendors to verify data integrity under all conditions.

Another manufacturer has a mesh product that uses software to send data in more than one frequency simultaneously. At the same time the data can take multiple simultaneous paths through the mesh network to get where it’s going.

Data Sources
Virtually every piece of equipment and every employee on a job site can be a source of data. In the case of equipment, whether it is mobile or stationary, real time data can be broadcast and received by making the equipment a “client” on a Wi-Fi network.  This is very similar to a computer being a client on a network in an office. A Wi-Fi device is installed on the equipment that captures data in the format native to the machine and then translates it so that it can be sent over the Wi-Fi network. At the other end, the data is displayed through existing software provided by the manufacturer or a user interface (UI) developed to pull disparate information from various manufacturers into one easily viewed “dashboard.”

Once all of the data sources on a truck or other piece of equipment are connected to the Wi-Fi device mounted to the vehicle, that data is then theoretically available wherever there is a network or Internet connection. Valuable data related to equipment maintenance (hours of operation, tire and oil pressure), and load cells (measuring load capacity) can easily be collected along with operational notifications such as information related to whether a cutting head on a continuous miner is on and engaged.

A number of companies have been providing hardware that makes mining equipment “network clients.” Most of these have focused on open-pit mines and to a lesser degree underground hard rock. Due to intrinsic safety requirements, underground coal has often lagged behind in having access to this technology.

Data from employees can also be collected easily and in real time. This allows the tracking of critical information related to employee and equipment location and movement within the mine for ventilation on demand requirements. Genesis cap lamps for the mining industry are now available with tracking tags housed directly in the lamp. This approach offers many advantages, not the least of which is reduction in costs due to lost or misplaced tags. These cordless cap lamps are designed to house a variety of RFID and Wi-Fi tracking tags, making them adaptable to a wide spectrum of networks. The ability to quickly and accurately locate workers is critical should an incident occur in the mine. Rescue efforts can be focused and valuable time can be saved simply through the use of a comprehensive and reliable tracking solution.

Tracking workers was initially instituted for safety, however, among the many other benefits, the use of tracking on a daily basis contributes substantially to the positive business case for this application.

Wireless Input Output Devices
Once a network is installed and information is available from various sources in the mine, another component to consider to optimize the system is a device that captures the information from the equipment and sends it up over the network.

Wireless input output devices (WIOD) can now be used in mines. WIODs are small and very cost effective all-purpose client devices that provide many advantages to transferring data through WiFi. WIODs for the mining industry currently have two configurable data inputs, a great deal of processing capacity, and a large amount of on board storage. They also have built-in temperature and pressure sensors as well as a three-axis accelerometer to monitor movement. The device is designed to work in or out of network coverage and can be mounted to fixed or mobile equipment and be line or battery powered. It’s a bit like a “Swiss army knife” for data.

One interesting application for WIOD is a very inexpensive ventilation on demand solution. Gas levels and airflow rates can be preprogrammed into WIOD. Gas detection and airflow modules can be attached to one of WIOD’s inputs with the other port wired to the ventilation fan. When the predetermined gas and/or airflow levels are met, WIOD can automatically turn fans on/off. Gas and airflow can also be remotely monitored and fans remotely turned on/off.

Data Storage & Management Reporting
Just like the cable network that serves a TV in a home, a data network in a job site will occasionally have temporary outages. Advances in technology and design are reducing network downtime, but the reality is that outages can occur. To overcome this challenge, and prevent the loss of critical data, client devices on vehicles and other equipment must have the ability to capture and store information that will be transmitted when connectivity is restored. This feature is also valuable for vehicles that may occasionally operate outside of the wireless range.

The beauty of collecting data in this manner is that it is highly flexible and is compatible with a wide variety of management reporting systems. With this data, centralized management information reporting systems can provide information that allows mine operators to provide a safer working environment and increase productivity and equipment reliability. Now, leaders can analyze and use the information in real time to tweak planning and production immediately.

Mine operators now have confidence that data can be gathered and transmitted efficiently and reliably. Gathering important data and providing it to team leaders quickly in a meaningful format is easier than ever. Cap lamps with tracking tags, WIOD devices and Wi-Fi technology work in concert to enhance management decision making information systems and to drive efficiency into leading organizations.

Heidi Levitt is president of NLT (Northern Light Technologies) and can be reached at hlevitt@nltinc.com. For more information, visit www.nltinc.com.