As of mid-September, Alliance Resources LP, Matrix’s parent company, was using more than 70 Matrix proximity detection-equipped CM units throughout the company’s fleet of underground operations. Additionally, Joy Mining Machinery, producer of the lion’s share of the CM units now in operation nationwide, and Matrix development partner, has sold more than 50 units equipped with the SMARTZONE proximity detection system, compatible with the Matrix design.

But looking forward, Matrix has determined that though the CM proximity rule has only been proposed by MSHA, following President Obama’s re-election, it’s quite likely that after this rule is finalized, an additional rule will be promulgated that includes equipment like shuttle cars, scoops and other mobile haulage at the face. The current technology was not designed with the range needed for faster mobile equipment, so Matrix and Alliance along with partner Joy, have been developing and are now finalizing new proximity detection technology for mobile equipment. The new gear will have twice the range that current equipment has and greater accuracy.

On an operational level, in 2013 Alliance hopes to be fully compliant with at least the spirit of the proposed proximity regulations as already announced. Many expect the existing proximity regulations to be implemented sometime in early 2013, with more stringent and expansive proximity detection rules treating all mobile equipment not too far behind. Either way, Alliance at least will be prepared and ready. However, beyond Alliance, few companies have really embraced the system and deployed the technology throughout their fleets. So how prepared will the industry be when this new rule comes down the pike? And how ready is your mine?

Proximity Detection on CM Units
Initially, Matrix installed its first system underground at Alliance’s southern Illinois Pattiki mine in October 2009. Based in large part upon the success of that system, since then Alliance made the decision—way ahead of regulations—to put proximity detectors on every CM coming out of rebuild. Today, more than 75% of the company’s CMs are so equipped. Nationwide, almost 100 other Joy CM machines also use a version of the Matrix design. Additionally, for more than a year, any CM that’s come through the Joy rebuild program has also been equipped with all of the necessary cable and connections for the Matrix designed proximity system. This ensures that, although not yet in use, all that the CM requires is a controller and some receivers and they are proximity detection capable.

Statistically, operators and others are in the most danger from the CM when it is tramming from entry to entry, place to place. The risk is higher not when the machine is cutting coal, but moving to the next entry. Consequently, with the Matrix system, “when the cutter head is not on, there is a larger protection zone. And that zone will not allow an operator to get into positions that he normally would when he’s cutting. Most of the fatalities have come when you’re either setting the miner over for the second cut or when you’re moving from one entry to the next and therefore dealing with a lot of visual information. It’s not the front of the miner I’m thinking about here though, but the back of it. The rear of the miner is the most dangerous part of the machine, particularly the two back corners, the horn where the cable comes in, and the tail swing,” said Randy Moore, director of engineering, Matrix.

Matrix’s proximity detection system creates a warning when an operator walks up to the CM. A set of colored lights will blink as he gets closer alerting him that the machine may be shut down. From this advance warning, if he walks further to it, or if the CM moves further toward him, additional lights will come on and the machine will shut down before the two intersect. This is the heart of the system: preventing human and machine from coming into physical contact.

After years of testing and improvements, the system has been hardened so that it can take the common knocks and dings that occur underground and still save lives. “We can’t afford down time. You have to put a system in that is going to hold up won’t require constant maintenance, or affect production. We’ve done a lot of work to ensure that part components hold up under harsh conditions. It’s not a perfect system. We still have issues with performance that we’re working on constantly,” said Moore.

Plans for Mobile Equipment
While proximity detection on CM units and crews is the immediate issue, coming up behind these regulations are other potential proximity rules for mobile in-by equipment (shuttle cars and scoops). Matrix is currently developing a viable extended range system and they are in the advanced testing stages now, hoping to have product availability in early 2013.

The challenge with mobile equipment is that “we need more range. The 35-ft range we’ve been working with for the CM system is just not enough for efficient mobile haulage operation. We’re also going to change the technology a little to get that range. We’re also adding extra safety features into the personal wearable devices (PWD) that are part of the system. If someone’s walking away from the shuttle car down the entry, the PWD will give them an audible beep if they enter into the warning area. If they are behind a curtain, it will give them advance warning before they ever see that shuttle car coming. We can also reduce the shuttle car’s speed, not shut it down, just reduce its speed to retain control. We’re also looking at how we can better modify these zones underground. Our system is designed to be intelligent, that’s why we named it IntelliZone,” said Moore.

The newly designed Matrix IntelliZone system is capable of slowing a mobile machine down, as well as applying brakes, if it enters a red “shutdown” zone unchecked. With certain parameters set, an operator can travel up to 5 mph in-by the feeder, but the Matrix system can reduce that to 2 mph when an operator approaches a designated warning zone or slowdown zone. “When you get in the red zone, IntelliZone shuts things down. The system slows down the rate of advance in certain zones and dynamically changes the zones based on speed and direction. And eventually, if needed, it turns off tram and on some equipment, could apply brakes,” said Moore.

“If that person is out there 50 to 60 ft, the proximity detection system does not need to throw on the brakes, but we need the driver to know that someone is out there, and both need to be cautious and safe. You only need to shut the machine down if someone is in the path of the machine, and is too close. This is done by precise triangulation of the personal wearable device worn by the mine operator and machine zone configuration based on the direction and speed of travel. With Matrix’s advanced software, caution, warning and shutdown zone configuration can be any shape we want,” said Moore.

Matrix already has shuttle cars equipped with the new system that are being used to prove it out. Although the company is once again partnering with Joy, they are designing the new system to be able to function on equipment available from a variety of manufacturers.

But the changes in the system are not confined to just the CM. In addition to the equipment installed on the CM, each miner already wears a small transmitter. The next generation of this device will likely feature a buzzer or an audible beep as well as LEDs. Matrix didn’t install this earlier because the first system was geared to be closer to the CM machine, 35-ft being the max range.

Although you’re running a miner remotely, Moore explained, you’re really not walking away from it and you have the LEDs and such already on the machine giving you feedback. “We’re considering putting these other warning signals on the longer range system. With the shuttle cars and other mobile equipment running, we’re really working to protect everybody on the unit itself. Everybody on each unit will have a transmitter on their person, we’re calling it a ‘locator,’ which is receiving signals instead of transmitting them. The new system will be receiving signals from the machine-mounted transmitter, so they’re transmitting the magnetic field,” said Moore.

On the current system these machines are called receivers since they’re receiving signals from the transmitting device. Matrix’s new system is a total reversal of that. The machine now will transmit magnetics to a receiver on the person. The new machine-mounted components are going to be called ‘drivers’ since they literally drive the signal forward.

All of this gear is very different from the new locator technology that many miners now wear on their hard hats. “That technology is RF. It’s used to track through our tracking network, but it’s not used on the system that we’re using because the hat tag is only transmitting once every two seconds. It doesn’t have the repeat rate that we use. Also RF attenuates badly. If you look in one direction, you get a different signal than if you look another. That’s why we’re using magnetics, because they really penetrate and the transmitting rate is much faster,” said Moore.

Many on the Matrix team believe that eventually every piece of mobile equipment will require an integrative proximity system that talks to multiple pieces of equipment, such as a single transmitter locater device, but how long it will take before that becomes regulation nobody knows.

Does Production Suffer from Proximity Detection?
Alliance’s River View mine, one of the premier CM unit operations in the nation, while mining from two seams simultaneously, is 100% equipped with proximity detection equipment. With coal customers lining up, contract obligations to meet, and production schedules to keep, operational continuity cannot be compromised, but neither can safety. River View’s crews have proved that installing and using proximity detection equipment does not have to compromise production.

But every mining professional has to be wondering to what extent does having proximity detection slow down or impact production? To answer this, Moore and Matrix conducted an exercise where they watched the production numbers following the installation for a longer term. Using the production average prior to installation over a two-month period using several systems, production was affected—particularly as operators were learning how to work within its parameters. But after approximately 20 days, productivity started to increase. Moore concedes that initially there was a significantly reduced rate of production, particularly at first. “However over a period of time, production bounces back. Within two months or less, most operators returned to the same productivity levels as before. But there is a learning curve, especially for veteran operators who have developed their own methods. It’s hard for them to change their habits. But newer operators are much more adaptable, especially when taught by a mentor that this is the way to do it. He learns it that way and typically you have no problems. Not only that, he may use proximity detection as part of the way that he operates his machine as opposed to seeing it as a hindrance. The system itself lets him know through the yellow zones when he’s in an area that’s getting close, and by seeing that there are no lights blinking, he knows he’s in an area that is safer,” said Moore.

Though there is almost no way to quantify how much safer an operator is working with proximity detection as opposed to without it, “in the end if it saves one life, it’s definitely worth it. For the most part I would say 95% of miners are glad it’s on there. They accept it because they know it’s the right thing to do. We’re fortunate to have a company that is behind the system. From the highest levels they have decided that, even though proximity detection is not yet regulated, you are going to run this way and monitor these things,” said Moore.

“The biggest problem that we have, I think, as regulations come out is we ask these guys to pack all this stuff: dust monitors, spotters and radios and now we’re talking about prox devices and things like that. For operators and other miners they are besieged by all these distracting, cumbersome devices that they have to wear, charge, understand, calibrate and use beyond mining coal—which wasn’t that easy to begin with. So as a company and product designer, we’re looking to integrate all these products together into one device. We can even do this for the bathhouse and materials side of things by standardizing charger racks and being able to use one to charge multiple devices,” said Moore.

Another question is why has Alliance become the champion of proximity detection, especially when it inherently may affect or even slow operations and production? Because coming from the top down, from CEO Joe Craft through Heath Lovell, vice president of River View, and all through the ranks of mine management, they have decided that this kind of technology is the right thing to do. Even prior to first deployment in Pattiki in 2009, Alliance funded the research and development activity of the system since 2005. It’s been a long-term goal of upper management to provide a safer environment for the continuous miner operator and all mining employees, especially those in harm’s way.

“Safety is our number one Core Value at Alliance Coal and as managers, we must lead by example. We ‘walk our talk’ by providing our employees with the latest technology in safety equipment and ensuring quality training. The proximity detection system provides a tool to modify the continuous miner operator’s behavior relative to their body position and places them in the safest location while operating the continuous mining machine,” said Kenny Murray, vice president of operations, Alliance Coal.

“The technology’s there to make the mine operator safer or make the equipment safer to run. We’d much rather make the decision to use it than to have to make just one visit to someone’s family and explain that ‘well we had that technology to save your husband or father’s life but we just decided not to use it.’ No, that’s not the way we as a company are going to profit,” said Moore.

Matrix designers work hand in hand with Alliance’s safety managers and personnel to get their input and to understand, from the inside out, how to merge the mining and safety technologies. Now they are working with the mine designers and planners to integrate these systems into the layout of new operations. Being owned by Alliance allows Matrix’s designers to access a test bed of five or six regional mines where they can install gear and really prove it out.

Alliance’s still new River View mine was probably one of the first mines designed from the beginning to have common tracking throughout. Though proximity detection was not built into the mine from inception, shortly after it was opened Matrix started putting it underground. Today it’s one of the largest conventional mines in the country operating nine CM super sections, all equipped with proximity detection. The Gibson South mine now in development in southern Indiana will also incorporate much of this cutting edge technology. “Our hope and plan is to have our new network in there, everything proximity related, be it for miners or shuttle cars, from day one. We’ll be doing everything that we can to ensure we’ve got our latest technology and latest products in the mine so it’ll be a safe, productive working section. We hope too that as new employees come on and are trained, they will learn how to use these tools from day one,” said Moore.