An Australian company has developed an in-the-cab, portable operator training system that allows instructors equipped with a ruggedized tablet computer and headset, and working from a centralized location, to observe and comment on operator behavior as if the instructor were actually in the cab.

Throughout the global mining industry, the computing tool of choice for personnel in remote locations, or for those constantly on the move, has generally been the laptop. In recent years, though, the growing capabilities and sophistication of smartphones have chipped away at the edges of traditional laptop territory such as email and video communications — but some tasks simply require a standard keyboard and larger screen for efficiency and convenience.

However, the changing nature of the mining industry, with operations and encampments increasingly located in areas without typical infrastructure or personal-convenience amenities, puts a premium on computing simplicity, battery life and mobility — and that’s opening a window for wider use of handheld ruggedized tablets, the latest of which can provide most or all of the capabilities of a conventional laptop in a lighter, more compact package.

The mention of tablets invokes images of Apples’s iPads, Microsoft’s Surface models or any number of generic Android products. There may be useful roles for these popular consumer products in office or light industrial settings, but most mobile-computing experts point out that even when they are mounted in protective cases, they will always be consumer-grade products that are not designed or built to withstand rough use in harsh environments.

For a user or company contemplating a step up from consumer units to industrial-grade tablets or computers, the price jump can be daunting, with the cost of an ultra- or fully ruggedized tablet often two to four times that of a consumer model. But, as with any type of equipment offered by multiple vendors, the primary approach for making a purchase decision should be based on total cost of ownership — including how often a buyer would be willing to repair a marginal product, or perhaps more importantly, the cost of what doesn’t get done while the unit is out of service.

Other important factors include how compatible the unit’s operating system is with a company’s IT setup, how easy or difficult it is to customize features and performance to meet company or user needs, and repair expediency; i.e., can common problems be fixed by swapping out a module on site or must the unit be shipped to a repair facility? Data security features are also a growing concern, and connectivity is important. Can data be downloaded, uploaded or transferred using common, standard industry protocols and ports, or does it require a proprietary cable or dongle that may be hard to replace if broken or lost? Can a unit’s memory or storage capacity be easily upgraded to meet future requirements?

A Look at Android for Enterprise

A recent entry in the ruggedized tablet market highlights many of the new features and advances available in this sector, and it comes with a twist on the usual configuration — it’s an Android-based tablet.

According to Explore Technologies, its new XSlate D10 10-inch (in.)-class tablet is designed to provide reliable operation in direct sunlight, rain and dusty environments, while running on Android 5.x (Lollipop). The unit, which weighs 2.4 lb (1.1 kg) and measures 7 x 11 x 0.9 in. (178 x 280 x 23 mm), offers:

  • Ruggedness – An IP65 Ingress rating provides protection from dust, as well as from low-pressure water streams from all directions. A magnesium alloy mid-frame contributes to the unit’s resistance to damage from multiple 5-ft drops on side, face and corners.
  • Battery Life – Two hot-swappable battery options allow users to supplement the 8-hour internal battery with battery “backpacks” that extend battery life up to 14 or 20 hours.
  • Outdoor Viewable Display – A high contrast, direct-bonded IPS screen provides 500 Nits of luminance and an 800:1 contrast ratio.
  • Performance – The D10 has an Intel Quad Core Processor and 4GB RAM, along with 64GB of internal SSD storage.
  • I/O and Communications – Standard ports include two USB 3.0, Micro SIM, MicroSDXC, HDMI-out, and RJ-45 10/100/1000 Ethernet. Wireless connectivity is furnished by 802.11ac Wi-Fi and optional 4G LTE capabilities.

The D10 has a number of configurable options, such as a detachable keyboard that turns it into a two-in-one device; vehicle and stationary docking mounts; carrying handle; and battery charging stands.

As Explore Technologies pointed out, development and adoption of Android products for enterprise applications has been sluggish for special-purpose tablets such as the D10. However, with the release of Android 5.1 in 2014, the updated operating system offered several new features attractive to corporate IT managers, including:

  • Device protection: If a tablet is stolen, any attempt to reset it requires the associated Google account information;
  • Project Volta, Google’s battery life optimization design;
  • 64-bit processor support;
  • Improved application runtime performance;
  • Improved Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity; and
  • Improved Security: Set geographical safe zones, better malware protection, policy enforcement at the kernel level.

In the Field…

An Explore Technologies spokesperson told E&MJ that currently, mining companies are using the D10 in a number of applications. At one operation in Latin America, technicians use the tablet to run software that tracks major production equipment status and health. Using the mine’s Wi-Fi network, they can remotely check inventory on parts availability and can place orders from the field, if necessary.

In another example, a tablet-based workflow is used by geologists to check the levels and types of minerals present in the outflow produced by high-pressure water cannons used at a placer-type operation. Technicians wade around in the sludge taking samples and running tests to optimize production, and need a device that works reliably in wet, dirty conditions, which is where the ruggedness of the D10 comes into play.

In a more conventional application, a Chilean mining company runs Joy Global’s ProManual app on another, very similar ruggedized tablet model that runs Microsoft Windows’ operating system. Using the Joy app, which is also available for Apple’s iOS tablet operating system, mine personnel can take advantage of several features that include:

  • Secure online and offline availability: all product manuals are made available within the ProManual app, which means workers don’t need to be connected to the Internet to access Joy’s manuals.
  • Version management: The ProManual app always includes the latest product manuals, and users that have gone offline are prompted to download the new versions of manuals whenever they are logged in and connected to the Internet.
  • Streamlined communication process: The app allows users to submit detailed feedback for any product manual instantly.
Explore Technologies’ XSlate D10 rugged tablet offers many of the standard features found in typical notebook computers, including numerous I/O options and battery packs, along with an optional detachable keyboard. The D10 runs on the Android operating system, v. 5.x.

…and In the Cab

In Australia, Panasonic reported earlier this year that Brisbane-based Global Tech Group had developed and is marketing a Portable Vehicle Training System (PVTS), designed to “revolutionize” training of operators on large single-seat vehicles such as dozers, graders and excavators. Key to the PVTS solution is the FZ-G1 Panasonic Toughpad — an ultra-thin and lightweight fully rugged tablet device, used in conjunction with a specifically designed clip-on keyboard.

Richard Vorias, managing director of Global Tech Group, said there were a number of key considerations in developing and patenting the PVTS. First, when training mining personnel on single-seat vehicles, it’s often not possible for the trainer to be next to the operator. This means that operators generally follow up their in-class training by driving the vehicle under the instruction of an experienced instructor who trains them over the mining radio network and views them from a safe distance. This method lacks privacy, which can lessen its effectiveness, and instructors have no way of viewing the trainee’s actions in the cabin.

Global Tech Group said its solution provides remote, private and live training with instantaneous feedback and guidance, and is designed with robust technology to withstand the rigors of mine site environments. The PVTS has now been implemented by customers within the industry.

The company went through some trial and error when initially developing the solution. The first remote system tested on a mining site was a “suitcase” that included a TV monitor. It soon became evident that the system was too heavy and large to be used in a vehicle cab and with too short a range to be versatile enough for training, as well as offering little resilience to dust and glare.

Global Tech Group went back to the drawing board, and building on this experience, developed a compact solution with one-to-one Wi-Fi communication, which they tested in the field with certified instructors at live mine sites. This version included ToughPad tablets that were capable of withstanding the environmental extremes of summer heat all the way through to driving rain, constant exposure to dust, and continual vibration and shock.

In addition to the Toughpad, the PVTS solution includes four individual cameras that capture high-definition video images, a rugged headset and a Pelican-style carrying case.

The PVTS is light enough for one person to carry up the steep stairs of a heavy vehicle using a hands-free strap.

The four cameras are mounted in and outside the cab of the trainee’s vehicle, while the instructor views the steering and other operations on the Toughpad screen and communicates via the headset. The cameras can also capture stills and video for later use in a classroom situation to demonstrate best practice or for review to improve performance.

The solution is unobtrusive for the driver, and the cameras and the screen provide visual clarity between driver and instructor in all weather, day and night. The direct visual feedback from the cabin makes it easier for the instructor to guide the operator and impart best practice in safe, efficient machine operations, including posture, steering and blade techniques.

“The headset fits under a safety helmet, and the Toughpad is easy for a trainer to hold in their hand to communicate with a driver from a safe distance without dropouts even when they are standing on the shoulder of a pit and the vehicle is 500 meters away,” said Vorias.