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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
Another option—900 MHz UHF passive tags and readers—did not provide a high enough rate of successful tag reads because of RF interference caused by the presence of water and metal. Each item used by miners is manufactured with different materials and components. The tagging of cap lamps is relatively easy to deal with because the lamps are made of plastics that have no effect on the readability of 900 MHz UHF tags. Self-contained self-rescue pack units, however, are housed in stainless steel containers that interfere with the readability of the 900 MHz UHF tags. The gas detection instruments are also packaged in stainless steel, which interferes with the operating frequency of the tag and reader.

Willard continued its search for an RFID solution and was introduced to a South African company called iPico Holdings by systems engineering and integration firm I-Chain. The integrator had worked with iPico to develop RFID systems for many different applications.

The RFID system helps Willard and its mine customers comply with the South African government's regulations regarding mines and worker safety.

In October 2003, Willard began experimenting with iPico's new passive Dual Frequency RFID tags and readers, as part of a four-week pilot program at Anglo American Platinum's Paardekraal mine in the North West province of South Africa. The Dual Frequency RFID technology combines low-frequency (125 kHz to 135 kHz) radiation with the high-speed data-carrying ability of high-frequency (6.8 MHz) RFID. The RFID reader transmits a low-frequency signal to power the tag, which uses the high-frequency spectrum to transmit a signal to the reader.

This dual-frequency capability allows for successful readings of multiple tags, iPico says, even in a crowd of miners descending down a shaft. The system can read an average of 7,200 tags per minute on a continuous basis, according to the vendor, and offers read ranges from 0.6 to 2 meters. The firm claims the technology enables the system to penetrate fluids, and even some kinds of metals, better than 13.56 MHz and 860-960 MHz RFID systems.

The Dual Frequency RFID system worked well in the pilot program, and i-Chain implemented 18 Dual Frequency readers and 5,000 tags in a single lamp room for Willard in the first quarter of 2004. The installation at the site included the creation of a local area network (LAN) to connect interrogators. IPico helped Willard determine the readers' placement within the lamp room to optimize performance.

The Dual Frequency system worked as expected in this more extensive deployment, Waterston says, "achieving the high degree of accuracy" needed to track the movement of miners through the lamp room. "Essentially, the miners move along a predetermined route equipped with readers, which allowed the collation of data in respect to miners and cap lamps that have passed these predetermined points," he explains. "Readers have not been installed underground as part of the Willard system, but if required, installation could be extended to particular work areas. The cost benefit of such installations would be a case for evaluation by the client mine." Willard is now installing the RFID system at two other sites, with a total lamp population of 4,000.

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