Consider a haul truck driving along a gravel road in rural Africa. The surface needs constant maintenance, blind corners are common and intersections change frequently. On top of this, the driver of the truck is likely to be suffering from fatigue and visibility is poor due to dust and thick bushveld.
Most would describe this scenario as an accident waiting to happen.
According to Mining Technology, however, automating more machinery is one of the most promising technologies in preventing fatal mining accidents, as it enhances safety and productivity using machines, control systems and information technology.
Donovan Waller, head of automation and remote control technology development at Anglo American’s mining and technology unit, makes a comparison between a Model T Ford and a modern luxury vehicle to illustrate the advantages of automation.
‘The Model T has an engine, gearbox, four wheels and a steering wheel – much the same as our modern-day cars,’ he says. ‘However, today we can slam on anti-lock-assisted brakes safely without causing the car to skid, headlights switch on automatically when daylight fades, sensors warn us of inadvertent lane transgressions and object sensors help us position a modern car safely, without causing damage.’
While operating a mining vehicle is certainly not the same as driving a car, adding features developed by technology has its advantages. Benefits also include lighter vehicles with larger capacities, better fuel and tyre efficiency and improved maintenance.
When it comes to the mining industry, automation is driven by the safety and health of workers as well as increased productivity, says Dave Bentley, Anglo American’s group head of technology.
Currently, three of the mining giant’s coal operations and a platinum mine in South Africa are testing automated equipment – a truck and drill at Landau and Mafube collieries (in a joint venture with Exxaro), a bulldozer at New Vaal and a drill at Mogalakwena platinum mine.
According to Timetric’s Technology Investment Priorities in African Mining report, more than 60% of mines have already invested in mine management-related software and technology, while 12% use autonomous vehicles.
A significant number of companies in South Africa have already invested and are planning further investment in vehicle-related technology, well ahead of the rest of Africa.
In January 2014, Barloworld rolled out the Cat equipment management solutions (EMS) telematic suite across its Southern African dealer footprint. The system, which makes use of onboard transmitting hardware – either via GSM cellular connection or satellite to provide near real-time fuel level information – filters machines by job site and geographical location, and has multiple machine-tracking aswell as geo-fencing capabilities.
This internet portal-based solution helps mining companies improve efficiency and monitor vehicles. Truck drivers can share information such as road conditions, fallen trees, flooding and vehicle breakdowns.
Of course, not all regions have reliable cellular connection, so this solution mightnot work for, say, a mining company ina remote area but satellite communication solves this problem.
This enables two-way communication between drivers and offices regardless ofthe cellular network. It can also be used for tracking haul vehicles, excavators, loaders, bulldozers and graders, while the web portal enables head-office communication with drivers via text messages (obviously, whenit is safe to do so).
Technologies aimed at monitoring vehicle-related activities using data to gain more insight into equipment and operations can also be beneficial within the industry.
Caterpillar is one of the firms that offer large hydraulic excavators equipped with smart technology. Its Cat connect link technology enables companies to track an excavator’s location, hours of use, fuel usage and idle times while the AccuGrade system provides 3D bucket tip position and elevation guidance, showing operators precisely where to work and how much to cut or fill.
Another Cat connect system, which uses detection technologies such as rear-vision cameras, can enhance operator awareness around heavy machinery.
While these advances are features related to the actual vehicle, driver fatigue is also a contributor to frequent truck accidents – not surprising considering the long hours mine truck drivers and machine operators spend in their vehicles.
Caterpillar research has found that 93% of haul-truck accidents in open-pit mines are due to human error, and that 60% to 70% of those are fatigue-related.
One of the companies that are addressing this is SafeMine. Its Fatigue Monitor assists mining firms to ensure that its operators maintain the required attention levels when behind the wheel. The system uses smart fatigue-assessment algorithms to assess operators’ tiredness based on individual situations, such as the speed of vehicle and area in the mine.
Collisions between machinery and rock are another common cause of accidents in underground and open-pit mines.
In South Africa, Becker Mining’s collision avoidance system (CAS) provides proximity detection and collision avoidance warnings between locomotives, trackless machines and pedestrians. The system helps the driver determine the type and quantity of obstructions (whether it’s another vehicle or a person) within close range by alerting co-located tags, flashing lights and sounding an alarm.
It also comes equipped with an emergency-stop function that is able to halt other vehicles within radio range of the CAS-enabled truck.
Camera technology is also being used to help prevent collisions. Eddie Smith, founder and MD of auto-electrical company Trysome, says collisions aren’t always the fault of the driver. This is because heavy-machinery operators are often seated in an elevated position, which at times makes it difficult for them to see directly in front, to the side or at the back of the truck.
To this end, Trysome provides equipment that has been adapted for various African countries. This includes cameras with a radar system (which warns the driver of something in their path), GPS traffic-alert systems (to warn a driver timeously of possible blockages in the road), and infrared illuminators (for a clearer view as night falls).
Infrared cameras, however, only function within a few metres and sometimes drivers have to operate in conditions such as smoke, mist and at night.
FLIR systems take care of this requirement with PathFindIR thermal-imaging cameras. As a supplier of these cameras, Trysome has already installed nearly 20 000 of the devices in various mining vehicles in South Africa.
‘The first installations were carried out on vehicles operating on opencast coal mines,’ says Smith. ‘However, it is of no consequence if the vehicle is being utilised for coal, gold, diamonds or any other type of mining operation. In all applications there will almost always be dusty conditions and all will benefit from having a thermal-imaging camera installed.
‘Other big and heavy equipment, such as excavators and wheel dozers, which are required to operate in dusty conditions, can also easily be equipped with thermal imaging.’