Some of the smartest innovations in heavy industry are those that meet (occasionally conflicting) demands for improvements in safety and productivity.
Although automation is hailed in some quarters as a sure-fire way to improve both, it can bring labour force challenges as well as hefty upfront implementation costs before any payoff.
The rise of cloud computing and the Internet of Things has seen rapid innovation in data gathering devices employed for heavy industry, particularly in the mining sector. And because work sites are often in harsh and remote locations, the new breed of data gathering devices are helping to improve safety too.
Drones collecting data safely
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been buzzing around mines and other heavy industry sites for a while as they offer a much more affordable and generally safer way to survey and map terrain than traditional labour-intensive methods.
Although all UAVs are known colloquially as ‘drones’, strictly speaking real drones have autopilot capabilities. Autopiloted aerial vehicles are particularly useful for surveying large areas in methodical grid patterns.
Proving that UAVs (or ‘drones’ as they’re known colloquially) have well and truly been embraced by heavy industry, robotics commentator Greg Nichols discussed the concept of ‘drones-as-a-service’ in a recent report for ZDNet. He noted that utility companies for example, can replace expensive surveys by helicopter with squads of drones and big data analytics. The drones carry laser scanning devices to capture 3D maps and potential risks to the power supply such as individual trees, then transmit the data for analysis in the cloud.
“The result is similar to what’s happened in warehouse and shipping logistics over the last couple years,” said Nichols. “Much like Amazon has used automated warehouse technology to both speed up and lower the cost of shipping, the power of drones and big data is being utilised to save on inspection costs and unscheduled maintenance while decreasing grid downtime.”
Rio Tinto’s aviation manager Kevan Reeve explained in a recent ABC interview that safety, more than cost, is the major driver for the uptake of UAVs in mining: “At our Argyle diamond mine they are taking footage of the open pit where they’re mining directly underneath,” Reeve said. “We can’t put people into the pit to actually measure the pit now, so we’re using the rotary wing drone.”
He also asserted that while mining companies are deploying drones on many more jobs, the flying machines won’t necessarily replace people: “We’ll give people other roles, so people are able to use the drone technology to do work that they would do otherwise. [For example] your fitter is able to use it to inspect a piece of equipment, and he’s able to do it from the ground where he’s safe.”
Low-power networks help large scale projects become remotely-controlled
Low Powered Wide Area Network (LP WAN) technology is helping accelerate the Internet-of-Things for massive industrial work sites and entire cities.
LP WAN makes it easier to transmit data from huge numbers of devices spread across vast distances and in some cases deeply buried, using emerging wireless communications such as:
- LoRaWAN (Long Range WAN – the first open standard was released mid-2015);
- Narrowband IoT on cell networks (Huawei and its partners announced an agreement on standardization in September 2015); or
- UNB (Ultra narrowband – a French company called Sigfox is developing low-cost and low-power radio networks for industrial sensors across Europe and the US)
The technology is also attractive for networked machines managed in the public sector, for instance parking monitors and street lights.
Meanwhile, the Ultra narrowband technology, which typically only uses very short, small bursts of battery power, is being championed for use by devices that can’t connect to the electricity grid at all, such as, utility meters, irrigation pipe controls and even tags on cattle.
Real-time monitoring of activities on large scale projects is becoming ultra-granular as businesses place sensors and other cloud-connected devices on doors, walls, machines and even workers.
Coupled with smart on-board controls, cloud-connected devices can not only monitor and report on any situation at a jobsite, they can also be set (or remotely controlled) to respond to it.
A recent Cisco report stated that Goldcorp has deployed one of the most efficient wireless underground communication networks in the industry, giving it real-time visibility of the safety of every person and piece of equipment under its watch.
Goldcorp’s new ‘Mine of the Future’ is geared up with vast sensor networks, remote controls and connected command and control rooms. By connecting its ventilation fans to cloud-controlled switch systems, Goldcorp is looking to save a few million dollars a year at its connected mines in Canada.
The technology dubbed ‘ventilation on demand’ tracks tags on workers and sensors on vehicles, and when they approach an area it automatically switches on huge fans to extract dust and diesel fumes from deep shafts, then switches the fans off as after they’ve left.
Similar automated switches have long been used for lights, though these once relied on sensors built in to each unit – now they’re all cloud connected.
“The health and safety of our workforce is Goldcorp’s number one priority,” said Luis Canepari, VP of IT for Goldcorp in the Cisco report. “So, we invested in technologies that boost workers’ connectivity to enhance safe production…. We provide our workers with the means to communicate quickly and effectively with decision makers, ensuring the right flow of information, at the right time. This provides us with safer, more cost effective and more efficient operations.”