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How Is RFID Being Applied in the Mining Sector?

Posted By RFID Journal, 07.16.2013

What types of radio frequency identification solutions have been deployed in that sector?

—Name withheld

———

Various types of RFID, both active and passive, have been implemented in the mining industry. The most common applications are:

Safety:
Indian startup company PervCom Consulting has developed a combined real-time location system (RTLS) and a real-time sensing system (RTSS) able to simultaneously track persons and assets, as well as monitor environmental conditions. The combined system, known as PervTrack, utilizes battery-powered RFID tags, routers and sensors compliant with the IEEE 802.15.4 standard to create a wireless mesh network.

The Central Institute of Mining and Fuel Research (CIMFR) Dhanbad tested the system in the Bagdigi coal mine to monitor workers underground and in potentially dangerous environment conditions. CIMFR and PervCom developed the system together, with CIMFR providing the mining expertise and system requirements, while PervCom focuses on software and hardware. PervCom developed the PervTrack RTLS, which employs active RFID tags operating at 2.4 GHz, attached to miners' cap lamps. Six R-101 routers were then placed at strategic locations throughout the mine, forming a wireless mesh network compliant with the IEEE 802.15.4 standard, and two miners were issued tags to test the system.

The routers receive and forward data transmitted by WiTrak tags, and serve as nodes in the wireless mesh network formed by other routers, tags and gateways within their vicinity. The locations of the miner and tag are determined by the tag's position relative to the nearest router, which has a transmission range of up to 1.3 kilometers (0.8 miles). The tags also act as a communications device, with miners able to send pre-coded messages to a central station by pressing a button on the tag. In addition, they can receive alerts from remote monitoring stations.

The system also monitored environmental data, including the detection of potentially poisonous gases, such as carbon dioxide or methane. PervCom developed the RTSS, in which the company's WiSense WiS-101 sensor-actuator nodes were embedded into PervCom's existing WiTrak WiT-101 RFID tags. The wireless nodes contain temperature, humidity and air-contaminant sensors capable of detecting smoke and fire, and of monitoring the air quality in buildings (see Indian Mine Monitors Workers and Toxic Gases).

Tracking materials mined:
Vale Inco is using radio frequency identification technology to track the grade, or mineral concentration, of ore as it is mined in real time. Geologists at the company's Stobie mine, on the south side of Ontario's mineral-rich Sudbury Basin, inspect the ore at each blast site, and then encode the grade to disposable RFID tags using handheld devices. They put the tags into the ore piles, which are picked up by large vehicles called "scoops" and are transferred to chutes leading to a conveyor system. From there, the ore is moved to a "crusher" that reduces it to 8-inch rocks, and then to an elevator that takes it to yet another conveyor system, which deposits the ore in rail cars that transport it to processing mills.

Along the way, strategically placed RFID interrogators read the plastic-encased RFID tags, which are designed to survive the crusher. The information from the tag reads is transferred to a database through a system of fiber-optic cables running through the mine. The RFID system, which replaced a manual, paper-based process, allows the company to more accurately forecast which type of ore it mines, and provides visibility into how long it will take to haul the ore to the surface. It also enables Vale Inco to provide the mills with better information regarding the ore blend they should expect, so they can prepare the proper chemicals to process the ore into metals, including copper and nickel. The company expected to save $30 million to $70 million annually thanks to the system (see Mining New Value From RFID).

And a number of South African gold mines are employing an RFID-based tracking system known as Oretrak, provided by RF Tags SA, to ensure that extracted material is not misrouted during the mining process. Goldfields, Harmony Gold Mining Co. and AngloGold Ashanti are all utilizing the system, while the Amplats Group is currently installing it (see RFID Helps Miners Strike Gold).

Tracking pickups:
Sesa Goa Ltd., India's largest producer and exporter of iron ore in the private sector, conducts more than 7,000 truck runs daily to and from multiple locations, including mines, processing plants and jetties. Managing the logistics was a daily battle that required an army of workers to continuously monitor and coordinate operations among various agencies. In 2009, Sesa's managers decided to address these issues. They sought to automate internal processes in order to reduce bottlenecks at weighbridges, deliver faster turnaround times of trucks at various checkpoints, and develop a single database to provide visibility into its logistics operations.

In 2010, Sesa Goa deployed an RFID solution that decreased the overall time required for trucks to complete delivery cycles. The solution is a direct contributor to sales volume, says Suresh Rathi, the firm's head of infrastructure and logistics, because if shipments reach customers faster, the company stands to save money and improve customer satisfaction (see Sesa Goa Automates Mining Logistics Operations)

And V.M. Salgaocar & Bro., an Indian mining firm that sells iron ore to some of the world's largest steel mills, has deployed a Near Field Communication (NFC) solution designed to simplify the tracking of trucks from the company's iron mines to various weigh stations, as well as through the firm's processing plant (see V. M. Salgaocar & Bro. Mines Automation From NFC-based Process).

Tracking equipment:
The BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) coal mine, in Norwich Park, located in a desolate section of Queensland, Australia, tracked its miners and gear manually, which was both time-consuming and prone to errors. Now, more than 300 miners with RFID tags embedded in their helmets head into the earth each day knowing they, as well as the more than 17,000 pieces of equipment they use, are being tracked and managed by RFID technology.

For BMA, RFID's automatic data-capturing and tracking capabilities provide an accurate and efficient method of controlling costs and making sure miners and equipment are available as soon as they are needed. RFID was selected over other competing technologies, due to its ability to track people and equipment quickly and unobtrusively at a competitive cost. The business case for the deployment was compelling, according to the company (see Working at the Coal Mine—With RFID).

Tracking workers to make sure everyone is out of the mine in the event of a collapse:
In 2009, Newmont Mining, one of the world's largest producers of gold, deployed a Wi-Fi RFID solution from AeroScout to track more than 600 miners and 95 vehicles, in order to improve worker safety and drive operational upgrades at its Leeville and Midas mines in Nevada. Based on these successful deployments, Newmont is updating its standard business model to include RFID in new mine development, and is considering the addition of RFID in its other mines as well (see RFID Is Golden to Nevada Mine).

At Anglo American's El Soldado mine in Chile, an RFID system gives mine managers aboveground real-time information on the whereabouts of 800 workers. And systems that track workers can also prevent people from trespassing and entering hazardous zones (see Chilean Copper Mine Tracks Vehicles and Workers).

International mining group Glencore Xstrata is utilizing a Wi-Fi-based active RFID system to track staff members, improve safety and raise productivity at its Beltana Coal Mine, located in New South Wales, Australia. The company's coal division has installed 200 active RFID tags into the battery packs of cap lamps worn by the miners. In addition to providing safety benefits, the system also improves productivity, since the technology reduces the amount of time that would otherwise be spent searching for personnel (see Xstrata Mines RFID's Benefits).

Tracking vehicles to avoid collisions:
Byrnecut Mining, a contractor based in Western Australia, uses an RFID system to prevent vehicular collisions in the Telfer gold mine in Telfer, Western Australia. The mining contractor works with nearly 15 mining companies in Australia and overseas, offering a wide range of services, from mine development and production to managing occupational health and safety, equipment management and maintenance, and purchasing and contract administration. Due to an increase in production, there was a rise in vehicle accidents at the Telfer mine. Therefore, it deployed a system that would alert drivers when another vehicle was nearby (see Australian Mining Contractor Prevents Vehicular Collisions).

Managing contract labor and rental equipment:
The mining industry worldwide relies on numerous contractors to supply workers, tools and equipment, such as vehicles and drills, to construct mines and keep them operational. Contract workers can include construction workers, electrical technicians, maintenance staff and those who work at mine-site restaurants. In fact, thousands of contract workers and pieces of equipment can be on site at any given time—often during multiyear projects.

Verifying that contractors are doing the work they were hired to perform, and then billing for the correct number of hours, is a big challenge for mining companies. What's more, rental equipment sometimes gets misplaced in the mines while rental fees for that equipment continue to accrue. Currently, it's a pen-and-paper system, and many mines often wind up being overbilled for goods and services. Some mines are turning to RFID to manage rental equipment and contract labor.

In Chile, construction company Bechtel is using an RFID system designed by RFID Chile to mange contract workers as they construct a new copper mine for Anglo American at Los Bronces, in the Andes Mountains. The project, which started in 2008, will extend into next year. Each contract worker is issued an RFID-enabled ID badge—Bechtel has purchased 20,000 badges to date—that includes a name, photo, company name and Chilean tax identification number. The RFID system has reduced the amount of time required to clear a busload of contract workers through access points from 25 minutes down to 7 minutes. It also allows roving "timekeepers" armed with handheld RFID readers to scan the ID badges and then enter work codes. The information is transferred to the company's computerized payroll system via a USB port. The timekeepers do not have to stop and ask for workers' names—they can simply walk around with a PDA, point it at the person and receive information from the tag (see Mining New Value From RFID).

—Mark Roberti, Founder and Editor, RFID Journal

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