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Mining for RFID's Benefits

At Anglo American Platinum's Paardekraal mine in South Africa, RFID is saving dollars—and lives.
By Bob Violino
Aug 15, 2005Mines present some of the toughest conditions imaginable for an RFID system. At the same time, Willard Batteries, which provides batteries and various management services to the mining industry in South Africa, is finding that RFID technology can provide a potential mother lode of benefits.

The company, a subsidiary of Allied Electronics Corp., one of the largest electronics companies in South Africa, has extended its business from being a battery product supplier to delivering services. Among the equipment the company manages for mining companies are battery-powered cap lamps, worn by miners’ on their helmets. By attaching RFID tags to the lamps, Willard can track their use and maintenance. The technology can also identify users and their movements into and out of the mines.


Finding an RFID system that works in mines presents a big challenge, one Willard Batteries decided to take on.

Willard's history of RFID use is something of a mining expedition of its own. Until recently, the firm’s relationship with the mining companies was solely that of battery supplier. About five years ago, however, Willard identified a new business opportunity in the mining industry: providing facilities management. Mining companies in South Africa had begun to outsource the management of their lamp rooms, where mining equipment is stored, maintained and dispensed. That equipment includes not only cap lamps, but also other portable lighting equipment, self-contained self-rescue packs, portable gas detection instruments and first-aid equipment. The lamp rooms have, on average, 4,000 to 5,000 lamps and other equipment, says Alan Waterston, managing director of Willard's DC power division.

To help automate the process of tracking people and items, the company developed proprietary "Intellilamp" software, which is used in conjunction with bar code technology to record the movement of miners through lamp rooms. Each employee is issued an ID with unique bar coded data, Waterston explains, which is the traditional system used in South African mines to identify employees.

"The bar code typically incorporates the employee number and various other codes, which allow or restrict access to predetermined areas," he says. "The details as contained on the bar code are captured on the Intellilamp system and married to the unique number on the RFID tag that is affixed to the lamp or any other instrument. This process is part of the initial setup of the database and referred to as the allocation of the lamp within the system. Once complete, it is only a matter of maintenance—adding new allocations or de-allocating when new employees arrive and others leave, respectively."

Finding an RFID system that would work in the mines, however, proved to be a tough challenge. Managers at Willard explored the use of both passive and active RFID technologies, Waterston says. First the company tried implementing 125 KHz low-frequency and 13.56 MHz high-frequency passive tags. Cap lamp battery compartments were fitted with tags, and readers (interrogators) were installed at equipment issuing bays and near turnstiles at lamp room exits leading to the mineshaft. These turnstiles also feature bar code scanners for reading each miner’s ID card as he passes through.

However, the RFID system failed to provide the required reading range of at least 600mm (2 feet), the free area in which a miner has to move through the turnstile. If the system's read range is less than 2 feet, Waterston explains, the possibility exists for read errors. The company studied the possibility of using active tags, which would have enabled the RFID system to have a longer read range to track assets, but this strategy wasn't viable because of the high cost compared with passive tags.

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