Access is an important word in the mining industry’s lexicon. Mining companies need access to areas of potentially valuable mineralization, to the agencies and government officials that assess and award mining concessions, and to sources of investor funding. On a more technical level, they increasingly need immediate, reliable access to data from IoT nodes and equipment monitoring systems in order to maintain safe, efficient operations. Two recent product announcements highlight the rapid rate of advance in the wireless networking and communications technologies available for both surface and underground applications.
IWT Expands Networking Capabilities
Wireless technology supplier IWT has introduced its latest innovation: the Wireless Working Section, based on the company’s new SENTINEL Uniti Node. The Uniti Node, according to IWT, consolidates all the capabilities mines need for now and in the foreseeable future: a high bandwidth, wireless backhaul for production data; a 2.4-GHz, industry-standard Wi-Fi Access Point; and communications, tracking and sensor support. Power is supplied from either a 110-VAC AC-to-DC power supply or a battery.
The wireless platform, said IWT, is easy to deploy and the mesh connections it offers allow users to find the network and link up automatically, according to the company. No preprogramming is necessary. IWT said the SENTINEL Uniti Node not only handles underground tracking and communication functions, but also provides the infrastructure to transmit data from production equipment at the face to the surface. “The real benefit of the Wireless Working Section that mines see is increased productivity by improving workflow,” said Brad Hartwick, IWT’s Midwest sales director for mining and tunneling. “It offers the tracking, communications and data features that users would expect, and it provides Wi-Fi at the face. Maintenance personnel, for example, can now FaceTime a factory technician and get assistance in diagnosing an issue in real time. SENTINEL Uniti also enables the users to establish data analytics and perform SSI [Short Session Interval] time studies.”
Earlier this year, the Mine Safety and Health Administration granted IWT an Intrinsically Safe Approval for the Uniti Node system. According to IWT, more than 100 mines use its SENTINEL system, and one of its customers, a coal operator in the eastern U.S., saw productivity increase 15% based on efficiency improvements. “The standard IWT communications and tracking system provides voice, text, tracking and data, which is a huge productivity enabler,” said Matthew Fisher, program manager for IWT.
SENTINEL Uniti adds high-speed data rate backhaul and offers local Wi-Fi access in conjunction with battery-powered voice, text and tracking system. Any Wi-Fi enabled device can connect to the network, Fisher explained. “And, when there is an emergency, the mine still has the post-incident voice, text and tracking system enabled for a long time as it’s very energy efficient. We have some cases where the safety side of this technology has proven to be life-saving.”
The system supports the new MSHA and NRTL-approved SENTINEL wireless gas monitor that IWT launched at the beginning of 2020.
The company also has developed a surface mine monitoring solution called Envōk. “We have a wireless network that can operate in rugged, remote areas, and can connect to existing sensors and equipment,” Fisher said. “Why not apply this technology to regularly monitor run-off, groundwater and tailings?”
Mines often must meet a predetermined set of environmental guidelines regarding runoff. “Envōk would collect water quality data and eliminate the need to manually sample the data on a pump or a sensor on a well,” Fisher said. “Manual data entry can be error prone. This system would offer real-time, live connectivity to sensors. Environmental managers and engineers can view this data on their phones and manage it from the office. The system works in remote places with limited or no cellular service.”
Hartwick added, “During the COVID-19 pandemic, companies had to adapt quickly to working remotely. This technology has solved that issue for many customers.”
IWT’s wireless network is simple and easy-to-use, Fisher explained. “With minor configuration in the web application, the end users can see the data and decide how they want to present it to the organization,” Fisher said. “Mine owners would have an automated solution and they could demonstrate to regulators that they are being proactive.”
The system could also be configured to signal ground movement to warn of a potential dam failure or landslide. “The system could monitor extensometers and, when ground movement hits a certain threshold, certain people are alerted immediately,” Fisher said. “This system could monitor conditions and send emails and alerts. It could also trigger other events to happen, such as sounding an alarm, closing a well or powering up a pump.”
The adoption rate for remote monitoring systems varies throughout the mining business. Some organizations know exactly what they want and others just know they have a problem. IWT can provide a turn-key solution for both, Fisher explained. “Different vendors provide sensors with different accuracies and this is an adaptable architecture that connects everything,” Fisher said. “The system can take values from two different sensors and combine that into new data and monitor that as well.”
Envōk reduces the manpower associated with monitoring all those items, Hartwick explained. “In a day, a mine engineer in the western U.S. could travel a 300-mile loop to manually record data from every point. Wireless devices can transmit all this data to one device within seconds. It will make the whole process more efficient.”
An Envōk turn-key solution can solve a lot of data collection problems, Fisher explained. “We assist in design, installation and maintenance,” Fisher said. “And, we provide an interface that allows users to manipulate values that they understand rather than programming custom apps. We are simplifying the installation process and eliminating the need to write code.”
IWT said it already has installed some Envōk systems and anticipates working with additional mines to implement pilot programs.
Wireless Smart Switch for Overland Conveyors
The Schmersal Group, in cooperation with aconno GmbH, has developed prototypes of an Industry 4.0 switch capable of wireless data transmission over distances of several kilometers for use with extended conveyor systems. The integrated wireless transmitter in the HDS series switches transmits status data for each individual switchgear unit via a common wireless mesh network to a cloud system. The prototypes are currently undergoing practical tests.
Schmersal said the new HDS switchgear series was developed specifically to meet the requirements of bulk materials handling operations. The switchgear unites a range of functions into a single platform, making it suitable for a wide range of applications. Typical application areas include emergency-stop shutdown, belt misalignment monitoring in the transport of bulky materials and level monitoring in material silos.
The emergency-stop and belt misalignment switches in the HDS series now accommodate wireless transmitters made by aconno, allowing diagnostic information to be transmitted from the switches more quickly and with greater efficiency. The switches have been integrated into a mesh network to enable status data to be transmitted from one node to the next over distances of up to 250 m. This, in turn, facilitates communication over several kilometers and, in particular, can simplify switchgear monitoring in large-scale conveyor systems.
All switching operations can be monitored in real-time and online via a web browser on a PC or smartphone. The data from the cloud can be transmitted directly to the control center or to maintenance and service technicians’ smartphones on site using the web interface or app. Malfunctions in conveyor systems are recorded in the cloud immediately and actuated switchgear units can be uniquely assigned, allowing for rapid troubleshooting by maintenance personnel. This, said the company, eliminates lengthy searches for faults in conveyor system command and operating chains, minimizing disruption caused by production outages and improving machine availability.
In addition, said Schmersal, depending on the distance and the environmental conditions of larger conveyor systems, the investment costs for this Bluetooth solution with a wireless mesh network are only a fraction of the system costs of conventional fieldbus systems with decentralized structures.
The German startup aconno develops customer-specific hardware, Bluetooth and sensor solutions, including Bluetooth chips and a development platform for individual Industry 4.0 applications. Schmersal Group owns 26% of aconno GmbH.