Innovative Technologies Boost Security And SafetyWed, 10/16/2019 - 16:54
An industry once characterized by high rates of accidents and fatalities, modern mining has the necessary resources at its disposal for guaranteeing the safety of its workers and contractors. While tragic episodes can be found in Mexico’s recent history, such as the collapse at Pasta de Conchos in 2006, ever more sophisticated technology and standards have resulted in 16 percent decrease in accidents in 2018 compared to the previous year, according to CAMIMEX. Of these accidents, 23 were fatal. In contrast, the US Department of Labor noted that in 2017 there were 15 fatalities in coal mines and 13 in metal and nonmetal operations in that country. Fernando Alanís, former president of CAMIMEX, explains that the accident rate in mining is actually lower than that of other sectors, like transport or commerce, for instance. In June 2019, Francisco Quiroga, Undersecretary of Mining, indicated that during the López Obrador’s administration, 14 deaths had been registered in the mining industry, two of them corresponding to illegal mining activities.
Among the central tendencies fostering safety is digitalization. When all the assets, from equipment to personnel, are monitored by means of data-producing devises integrated into an overarching system, managers gain the ability to keep key variables under close scrutiny. A case in point is the technology developed by Nomad Industries, a Zacatecan startup that understands safety as the cornerstone to the transition to Industry 4.0. The company’s flagship product is Note, a device for visualizing all the factors in a mine ecosystem, both underground and open pit. It enables operators to determine the exact location of each asset and evaluate safety according to predetermined parameters. Deploying Note throughout a mine operation generates massive amounts of information, which not only is conducive to monitoring safety on a real-time basis: as the data is stored in the cloud, a sort of black box is created, useful for understanding accidents whenever they do happen. “Digital technology like Note is ideal for pinpointing the reasons for failure, preventing them and making sure they never happen again,” says Ricardo Saucedo, CEO of Nomad Industries, says. Another Mexican company leading the way in digital technology for increased safety is Lasec. The company has pioneered Smart Flow, a system that integrated different telecommunication devises into one single stream of information that managers can easily read. In collaboration with Coeur Mining, Lasec has been successful in creating a practically smart mine. Digital infrastructure is now in place for locating people and vehicles and controlling motors, vehicles and pumps; moreover, a telecommunications network has been installed, which allows effective communication, even underground. “This is a true revolution in the industry: technology such as this is drastically improving safety,” says Jesús Flores, Director General of Lasec.
Automation is a further tendency boosting safety. Taking human error out of an operation can result in considerably safer working environments. For instance, with regard to the use of explosives, one of the activities in mining with a high-risk potential, promising developments are taking place in the Mexican industry. Nomad Industries has created a smart board that is able to determine whether an unauthorized element is present within the predefined radius of an explosion, and if it is, to stop the blast. This is an example of an industry-wide trend. As Tom Bannister, CEO of Carroll Technologies Group explains in an article for Mining Technology, “we are doing a lot of things with remote, wireless remote controls now, so the individual does not have to be on that piece of machinery to run it—he stays out of harm’s way and does not have to get under unsupported top, or stay out of hazardous areas and check equipment remotely.”
But automation and digitalization, while greatly contributive to safety, are not enough. They have to be engrained in a culture where they can be effective. Developing protocols and regulations that workers understand and adhere to is key in this respect. Alfredo Arce, director general of Grupo Terra, an explosives company, explains that Mexico is lacking in these instruments. “There is no guideline specifying the characteristics with which users must comply to handle explosives,” he says. To fill this gap, Grupo Terra conducts training, both for its own workers and for its clients. Additionally, the company is developing a training center, involving government, universities and industry members, where best practices will be exchanged. Three key areas will be emphasized: practical use of explosives, supervision and blasting control. This initiative is in line with the experience of Efrain Martínez, Regional Manager at Dräeger. “Despite technological advances, promoting a safety culture in the mining industry should be the top priority. As mines become bigger, deeper and more isolated, it is vital that governments and key players throughout the mining value chain enter a dialogue to further develop and standardize effective safety protocols and practices.”
Security also is among the main areas of concern among investors considering the Mexican market. In the words of Darren Blasutti, President and CEO of Americas Gold and Silver Corporation: “The Mexican mining industry is second to none in many respects, including its workforce, but a recurring issue is having the confidence to invest given the pervasiveness of organized crime in the country.” This issue is effectively holding back the development of regions with world-class potential in minerals such as gold, like Guerrero. “We have some concessions in Guerrero and will probably explore there in the near future. But the circumstances are very complex. State and federal governments are working to improve them. However, more work still needs to be done,” says Octavio Alvídrez, CEO of Fresnillo.
Ingenuity is key for ameliorating the security conditions miners need to successfully carry out their activities. A relevant example is Oruss, a young Mexican company that has developed an innovative GPS technology for preventing theft of cargo. The device makes sure containers in a truck cannot be opened until they reach their final destinations. Once the cargo has arrived, the operator can verify whether there has been any kind of tampering or manipulation. Grupo Peñoles has incorporated Oruss’ services at its Francisco I. Madero mine with excellent results.
As the world population continues to grow, pressure on the mining industry intensifies. According to IBM, all crew members of spaceship Earth will require approximately 3.11 million pounds of minerals, metals and fuel during their lifetime. Among the key productivity-enhancing trends that will satisfy demand is the Internet of Things (IoT). IBM explains that equipment, machinery and eventually all assets in a mine operation, including human beings, are being armed with sensors that generate huge amounts of data. This data, in turn, is analyzed in real time and translated into recommendable actions for mine operators. While this improves performance and boosts productivity, it also cuts down costs and waste and helps prevent machinery failure. As Lenin Escobedo, Country Manager of Datamine, points out, “By implementing IoT technology, our clients experience benefits in all areas. They gain strategic knowledge for the long term and operational finetuning in the short term. This creates a better flow from beginning to end.”
But the IoT not only improves productivity. Safety is another fundamental aspect of a mine operation that is benefiting from this trend. To give a basic example, IoT can help prevent the collapse of unstable shafts, because the sensors will register data, make information available to an operator in real time and allowing the operator to predict failure before it happens. Another instance would be integrating workers into an IoT network, and thus warning them not to venture into hazardous areas at predefined times. Miners that have incorporated IoT in their operations as a means to improve safety include Goldcorp, which, as Mining.com notes, fitted tracking devices to the helmets of employees to monitor their real-time locations. The company also developed an IoT solution to regulate air flow in mines. For its part, IoT technology is at the core of Rio Tinto’s world-renowned autonomous haulage system trucks, which are in operation at the company’s Pilbara sites. These trucks are operated by a supervisory system and a central controller, rather than a driver. They use pre-defined GPS courses to automatically navigate haul roads and intersections and to know actual locations, speeds and directions of other vehicles at all times. But these autonomous trucks have to be integrated into a network of data-producing sensors so that operators can assess and prevent any possible collisions.
Fitch Solutions emphasizes the usefulness of gas detection and air flow or ventilation monitoring sensors. These can prevent potential hazards through assessing levels of toxic or flammable gas in a mining operation and alerting workers accordingly. Furthermore, having all these elements interconnected through a central system would also improve evacuation procedures and rescue operations in case of a disaster.