Innovative Wireless Technology’s mTracker software allows dispatchers track assets in real-time. (Photo: IWT)

Real-time information on personnel or asset location, or from equipment at the face, supports rapid decision-making and planning

by jesse morton, technical writer

Integrated, high-speed networks underground offer real-time situational awareness that can help a mine do more with less. That capability makes a big difference when there are labor and supply chain constraints.

Beyond that, being able to track personnel and assets in real time arms managers with important information for rapid decision-making and planning. And most importantly, real-time situational awareness improves general site safety and the ability to respond to emergencies by eliminating numerous unknowns.

These capabilities and more are offered by the latest, most advanced products on the market. The benefits offered are tangible and rapidly realized. Suppliers said that adoption, even incremental adoption, can help eliminate inefficiencies, cut costs, increase productivity and decrease downtime.

Cut Costs While Increasing Productivity

Innovative Wireless Technologies (IWT) reported the company is developing an ultra-high-resolution tracking solution that locates to within a foot. “It is being piloted at customer sites now, and in the future will enable additional applications,” CEO Eric Hansen said.

Upon release, the solution will add to the supplier’s burgeoning portfolio of offerings that give critical real-time asset and personnel tracking information throughout an underground mine and to the surface.

“Real time location services provide a level of situational awareness from aboveground for what is happening below ground,” Hansen said. “Not only is it a regulatory requirement, but it is a productivity enhancer as well,” he said. “Knowing where all your assets are and having the ability to collect time study information enables faster decision-making and more rapid adjustments to ever-changing conditions throughout each day.”

IWT’s tracking solutions are exemplified by its push-to-talk radios, which offer “crystal-clear voice and text” and which also serve as tracking devices, the company said. The radios receive continuous coverage over the SENTINEL wireless network, and send location data to advanced dispatch software in the far reaches of the mine or on the surface.

“Our tracking solution is unique and valuable to the mining industry because it is real-time and high precision,” Hansen said. “Many tracking systems use zonal tracking, or RFID-like technology, and the system knows you passed by key zones but doesn’t know where you are in between large zonal areas,” he said. “With IWT you are always connected to the network, so your location is always precisely known.”

Precise location information supports situational awareness. “It allows an operator to know where any asset in the mine is currently located, whether it’s a person, a piece of equipment or a skid of material,” he said.

IWT also offers a personnel tracking tag, an asset tracking tag, and an ore tracking tag.

Information from the tracking solutions is used by IWT’s Dispatch software solution, which can be seamlessly integrated into mine management processes and systems. “Mine maps can be easily imported in their native AutoCAD format, without additional re-formatting or conversion,” Hansen said. “The historical video playback feature can trace any asset location over a historical context of all mine assets for total situational awareness and mine-wide visibility.”

The tracking solutions and Dispatch are designed for use with IWT’s SENTINEL wireless network.

“Our system is based on proven, scalable wireless mesh technology that has been adapted to the underground mining environment,” Hansen said. “Our system is 100% made in the USA, which we are proud of, and has become a competitive advantage during the supply-chain-challenged pandemic years.”

IWT’s Tracking Tag is small, lightweight and powered by batteries that can be easily replaced. (Photo: IWT)

SENTINEL is unique in that it supports a range of applications, including voice, text, tracking, data, gas, and more. “Miners need reliable connectivity but often face maintaining separate systems for separate services,” he said. “One for tracking, one for gas monitoring, one for page phones, one for data,” Hansen said. “IWT’s is the only system on the market that integrates these services under one completely wireless system.”

As a truly wireless solution supported by artificial intelligence-driven analytics, the network saves time and money on installation, advancement, repair and maintenance. “We have 15 years of analytics and data that showcase the benefits of integration, to include lower total cost of ownership and productivity gains in tons per hour,” he said.

The advanced analytics suite that runs over the network “quickly pinpoints problems so maintainers aren’t ‘needle-in-a-haystack’ troubleshooting miles of cable to find a break,” he said. “Finding cable and fiber breaks along with the high cost of cable is eliminated.”

The self-healing mesh network gives more than two layers of redundancy. “MSHA requires primary and secondary levels of redundancy,” Hansen said. “Cross-cut coverage, handset radios bridging the mesh network, and fiber backhaul adds even more redundancy to the system.”

The system is also interoperable with federal and state mine rescue team equipment. “Federal mine rescue teams and many state mine rescue teams have standardized on IWT’s system,” he said.

The list of benefits the network offers is topped by comprehensive connectivity that allows a mine to maximize utilization of personnel and assets. “In this tight labor market, with a better connectivity solution you need less skilled labor supporting this aspect of your business,” he said. “They have more time to support production, and you can produce more with less.”

Upon adopting and implementing a SENTINEL network-based system, customers see an up to 7% boost in tons per hour, he said. “With an all-wireless system, the section moves and longwall moves are quicker,” Hansen said. “Skilled labor resources can troubleshoot the entire network above ground,” he said. “Thus, mine resources are focused less on maintaining connectivity and more on productivity.”

A SENTINEL network-based system can lower costs. “Fifteen years of historical data shows typical coal mines save 20% to 25% in recurring cost of ownership with IWT,” he said. The hardware is durable, which saves on maintenance and replacements. “These reliable products were designed and tested for harsh military applications,” Hansen said.

IWT solutions can help an operation attain full compliance. “Users of IWT’s system have on average 43% lower compliance and citation fines than do customers of the nearest competitor,” he said.

These benefits are the fruits of a rich history of developing state-of-the-art communications solutions for the most demanding applications.

“IWT continues to innovate in coal,” he said. “In the last 5 years, IWT has had three times as many new product approvals under MSHA Part 23, for communications and tracking, as the nearest competitor.”

Eliminate Inefficiencies, Decrease Downtime

Matrix Design Group reported it installed a high-speed data network at Burning Springs underground mine in West Virginia. “Burning Springs installed a network with tracking, voice and cameras with AMS, which has helped the operation be more productive through better communication,” said Chris Adkins, mining manager, Matrix Design Group.

Previously, the mine “was using RF methods of communication through a leaky feeder system that were inconsistent,” Matrix Design Group reported. Burning Springs adopted an N-Connex high-speed data network with Icom VOIP radios.

“Tracking software was then added to the system for personnel and equipment,” the supplier said. “Environmental monitoring software from Maestro Digital Mine was also employed to check air quality,” Matrix Design Group said.

Beyond uninterrupted communications, the network contributed to increased situational awareness and productivity, and decreased downtime.

The Matrix Integrated Networking System is “an integrated networking system for underground coal managers and operators,” Adkins said. “We use top-tier solutions from a variety of companies, such as Maestro for high-speed data over coax and atmospheric monitoring and NLT Digital for additional high-speed networking solutions, including tracking and voice communications using VoIP radio systems.”

Another top-tier solution that can be integrated, Matrix’s PowerLine Module sends data from the face equipment to the surface, “such as the most critical key performance indicators from the machine,” he said. “This integrated network offering is turnkey from the most basic stages of a network.”

With it, mines can “place many devices and pull data from important pieces of equipment used in daily operations as well as safety applications,” he said. “The ease of Matrix’s solution enables the least technical to the most technical people to operate and manage it.”

The network can supply “a mine rescue team the last data before everything had to be shut down during an emergency,” he said. It can supply a mine manager with data that can be used to gain near-real-time mine-wide situational awareness.

Matrix’s PowerLine Module sends data, such as key performance indicators, from the face equipment to the surface. (Photo: Matrix Design Group)

“A mine manager has to deal with many aspects of the daily operations in mining,” Adkins said. “With the Matrix Integrated Networking System, the mine manager would be able to access data from the section, look at camera feeds, and communicate with people instantly,” he said. “Cameras can improve asset management underground as well as verifying data from alerts prior to going to those locations.”

The network can supply personnel with “important information for troubleshooting, such as manuals or support videos, or even get live support from suppliers,” he said.

The main benefits offered stem from having uninterrupted communications and critical data exactly when needed.

“There are numerous benefits that can be realized from bringing the outside and face of the mine together, such as clear communication and ease of pulling necessary data at any point outside or inside the mine,” Adkins said. “These benefits can result in increased safety, communication and productivity.”

The advent of the offering capped roughly a half decade of assembling “many networking resources that now enable the company to design integrated systems that can meet the individual needs of each mine,” he said. “The company has had such success in hard rock mines that we are now introducing it into coal.”

The Matrix Integrated Networking System can be deployed to operations of any size, Adkins said. “The solution fulfills our company’s mission of providing the most advanced technologies to help mining operations be more safe, efficient and productive.”