Modern day mining is a challenging business, where operating profitably can be short lived and can change rapidly. Mines rely heavily on the people and equipment available to deliver the highest results when they are needed. The use of new technology and autonomous mining equipment, can impact the overall performance and bring great benefit to the operation of the machines, the management of the site, and the efficiency of the job.
OEMs that invest in new technology work to improve machine control and expand the capability for diagnostics and prognostics. Wireless control technology is becoming more common with many new products available. Plus, technology supports the continuous evolution toward autonomous mining equipment which is becoming more of a reality. These types of technologies can have significant positive impact on the operating costs, the machine uptime, and the general reliability of the equipment.
The challenge is to be able to invest, develop, integrate, and evolve these technologies on the equipment through busy times and slow times. Electronic designers/manufacturers/integrators can play a valuable role in this process as they tend to have a broad range of experience, products and capabilities and can help lay out an effective multi stage implementation plan for the long term. This article discusses some of the technologies that can have a positive impact on mines and their equipment, and the critical aspects towards their successful adoption.
The Mining industry is one that deals with extremes. When the market is hot, it operates at full speed, extracting as much material as possible with a full labour force operating around the clock. During these times, companies will invest in machines and technology to expedite operations at the fastest pace. However, when things are slow, operations come to a halt, and the investment and development comes to a stop.
The feast or famine nature of this market makes it very difficult for companies to focus on the future and long term growth. But the extremes in mining do not only apply to the market.
A mine is an harsh environment for both people and the equipment. Safety and machine reliability are critical factors in running a successful mining operation and the products must be continuously evolved to stay up to date with changing standards. Companies that can continue to invest and evolve their technology, even in the down times, will emerge in a strong position when the market comes back.
In preparation for this change, innovative companies will focus on technology that will allow them to operate safer, more cost effectively, and more efficiently. Specifically, they will focus their development in the areas of machine ruggedness and reliability, controls and automation, user interfaces, sensing technology, and data management. This article focuses on these areas and the electronic sub systems that bring these technologies to realization.
Ruggedness and Reliability
Mining equipment face some of the most extreme environmental conditions in mobile equipment and the machines must be rugged enough to last and operate reliably. The electronic sub system is no exception.
These products must be designed to not only withstand the electrical conditions typical of mobile machinery but most importantly protected against the mechanical conditions as well. Products must be sealed against water and dust, resistant to salt and corrosion, able to withstand heavy abrasion/cutting, vibration and shock, and fully functional at temperature extremes.
However, the electrical sub-system can go further to provide diagnostic and prognostic information on the entire machine. Component failures on a vehicle are extremely costly and can not only render the vehicle inoperable, but can hold up the entire line of vehicles tied to the plant’s operation. Vehicles can be outfitted with sensors that can measure and record how the machine is operating and feed information into the electronic control system which in turn can provide insight into preventative maintenance tasks that could be performed to avoid vehicle down time. When components do fail, the speed at which they are repaired has a direct impact on the day’s financial results.
Remote diagnostics can be implemented to provide the ability for service people to troubleshoot vehicle issues from remote locations. This helps service technicians prepare themselves with the right parts and tools prior to visiting the machine, significantly reducing any downtime. When it comes to the electronics, plug and play systems that allow modules to be replaced without any setup or software changes, make it easy for any service technician to perform the repair.
While vehicle reliability is critical in any industry, the potential length of the downtime and the follow on financial impact makes it even more critical for mining. Electronic control systems must be designed to withstand the environmental conditions and must also add the ability to diagnose, troubleshoot, and repair.
Controls and Automation
Electronic control systems can play a very important role in mining equipment and across the mine in general. Control system development has been working towards the ultimate goal; to have a fully autonomous mine operating on electric power. While this is an entirely achievable objective, it will take time and incremental steps to get there for most mining companies.
When it comes to electrical power, the fewer diesel engines running in an underground mine, the less effort needs to be put toward air extraction and ventilation, and the safer it is for people working in that space. Electrical power is the best way to address this issue but this approach also introduces new challenges. Different countries have different regulations for the voltages used in DC power systems requiring OEMs to design and support multiple configurations. As the use of electrical power systems increases, the need for battery management and charging systems will also rise. These systems are responsible for ensuring the continuous operation of the equipment and critical to the success of the mine.
When it comes to autonomous operation, the first step is to focus development on the basic machine controls. Electronic controls over the engine, the transmission, steering, and hydraulics will provide the fundamental capabilities to build toward autonomous mining equipment. Since the control functionality is implemented using software, there is a high degree of flexibility on what can be done.
Some OEMs prefer to control the software development themselves, reducing their reliance on integrators or suppliers to make changes. This is especially true in situations where vehicles are built with a high degree of configurability or options. When the software can be configured on site, then the time and expenses for making these changes are minimized. The next step is to add wireless connectivity to connect to the internet allowing remote users to control the vehicle from any location with internet access.
With these fundamental services in place, autonomous operation is just another layer of software that commands the control system to perform certain tasks. Autonomous functionality will most likely start by focusing on certain operations, such as the changing of a drill bit, and gradually add functions until the whole machine can operate on its own.
Today, different degrees of autonomous operation do exist focusing on different functions. In some case a dedicated area of the mine is defined, where people are expected to stay out, and autonomous vehicles are expected to stay within. This technology helps to address the safety aspects of autonomous operation by keeping people in a safe zone. As this evolves towards full autonomy, the wireless connection would allow remote operators the ability to push autonomous tasks out to each of the vehicles as well as give them the ability to monitor progress, watch for warnings or errors, and allow for remote shutdown in emergency situations.
The benefits of autonomous mining equipment are that functions can be performed in a repeatable and reliable manner, less people are required to work within the mine which promotes a safe working environment, and operations can continue when people would traditionally not be available such as overnight or during shift change. It may take some time to achieve a fully autonomous mine through iterative design cycles, but the technology to do so is available. The next few sections discuss some of this technology in more detail.
The user interface refers to the ways that people interact with the machinery. Traditionally, this would be a dashboard display or instrument cluster containing gauges and LEDs. But today the options are numerous and powerful.
The user interface could be a tablet or smartphone or it could be a laptop in a remote location. Wireless technology makes it possible for the user interface to be anywhere and provide an entirely different set of information to the user then we are traditionally used to.
One example are remote user interfaces that provide the ability to perform diagnostics from a remote location. This capability will shorten the time needed to diagnose issues, remove operators from dangerous environments, and aid in preparing technicians with the right tools and parts to fix the issues.
This ability is fundamental to autonomous mining equipment, allowing users to be located remotely from the actual job site and their role will not be to drive the vehicles, but instead to assign tasks to different machines and then monitor progress. The user interface in this scenario is quite different from what we are accustomed to today. The assumption here is that the machine controls are reliable, the autonomous functions are efficient, and the wireless connectivity is stable enough to allow the machines to operate on their own.
As vehicles become more autonomous, the role of the operator will also change to become more of a site manager. The site manager focuses not only on the operation of one machine but on the entire fleet of vehicles working on a site. Jobs would be assigned and pushed out to autonomous vehicles and managed from a central remote location. The user interface would provide the information necessary to plan, coordinate, and monitor the entire operation.
Key to any control system is the use of sensors to measure and monitor the operation of all the functions on the vehicle. Sensors provide the feedback to the control system to allow it to operate effectively and they provide diagnostic data to detect failures or to prevent them. When it comes to autonomous operation, sensors will be required to not only monitor the operation of the vehicle but also to detect objects surrounding the vehicle.
As autonomous functions are added to the vehicle control system, it is critical that a high degree of focus in spent on the safety system to ensure that any autonomous functionality is implemented safely. It is reasonable to expect that autonomous functions will operate in the vicinity of people.
Therefore, having a control system that can detect people and objects around the vehicle will be mandatory for the successful release of these systems. The detection system would be used to guide the machine to operate safely, or simply to shut down if necessary.
Due to the development of autonomous vehicles in the automotive market, the technology for object detection is available and can be integrated into mining equipment. Various different sensing technologies are available to integrate into the control system including cameras, ultrasonic sensors, accelerometers, and GPS. Algorithms for pattern recognition and object identification can be used to differentiate between people and objects and allow the system the ability to make decisions.
It is often necessary to adhere to legislated safety standards that define the level of safety integrity that must be met based on a risk assessment of the system. Following these standards ensures that the system is designed to handle failures in a safe and predictable manner. Regardless of the vehicle control system or the functionality required, sensors and sensing technology are most often needed to provide feedback to the system. As systems evolve towards autonomous operation, the sensing technology will need to function as the eyes and ears of the vehicle.
This article has discussed a number of development areas that support innovation in mining. The common link that ties all these areas together is data. Data is used to understand how the equipment is performing, where it has been, and what it has completed. The analysis of this data leads to prognostic intelligence and failure prevention.
Data is used to tell an autonomous vehicle what jobs to perform. And data is fed back into the design process for continuous improvement. To manage all the data requires cloud based management systems combined with wireless technology for communication. These systems will collect the data from all the various sources for storage and processing and provide access to the data to authorized users with a username and password. By managing all of this data and by extracting the key specific information, the performance and efficiency of the entire site can be streamlined. Using the cloud to store and manage the data ensures that the data is safe and secure, and that it can be accessed from anywhere.
In conclusion, this article has discussed a number of development areas that contribute to innovation in mining equipment. Specifically, it discusses the evolution toward autonomous mining equipment and the technologies that will contribute to its development. OEMs that invest in these developmental areas will be strongly positioned for growth when the market recovers.
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