Iron Mine Uses RFID to Locate and Control Equipment

By Claire Swedberg

Precyse Technologies' Smart Agent active tags enable the mining company to know where its generators, welding equipment and mobile lighting are located, as well as switch the lighting on and off.

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Equipment used at a West Australian open-pit iron mine is being managed across a 40-square-mile area via active radio frequency identification tags to identify where certain equipment is located, as well as control its operation. The solution, provided by IT and professional services company CSC, using Precyse Technologies‘s Smart Agent battery-powered RFID tags, enables the mining company to control the power within more than 40 mobile light towers used to illuminate the mine during nighttime work hours.

“Improving ‘time-on-tools’ for maintenance crews was the primary driver for the project,” says Jarrod Bassan, a CSC senior consultant. The amount of time workers spend with tools is a measure of productivity, he explains, and the mining company sought to reduce time-wasting activities, such as searching for assets or discovering that critical equipment was out of fuel.

Precyse’s Babak Aghevli

“It’s not unusual for maintenance crews to report that they spent two hours searching for tools and another two hours dealing with equipment that is damaged or out of fuel,” Bassan says, describing a typical 12-hour shift.

Ultimately, Bassan notes, “by improving time-on-tools, we are helping them to increase the availability of their production assets, and to reduce their maintenance costs.”

Precyse Technologies offers its Smart Agent tags for tracking personnel, assets and vehicles. The tags come with built-in GPS technology, so Precyse’s location-tracking software can use data not only transmitted by the overhead network of global positioning satellites, but also data collected by RFID readers installed on the ground, in order to provide precise location data when satellite signal conditions are poor. The Smart Agent tags, which can communicate with a reader known as a Bridge Port from as far away as 1 kilometer (0.6 mile), come with several other features. For example, a tag can be wired to a machine’s circuitry, thereby enabling a user to control the operation of that equipment by means of instructions relayed wirelessly via RFID. The user can upgrade the tag’s firmware wirelessly or change its configuration—such as how often it beacons.

The mining company using the RFID system has asked not to be named, but Babak Aghevli, Precyse’s global professional services VP, describes the deployment site as a 40-square-foot open area that spans the surface mining operation as well as some mining infrastructure, including maintenance buildings and conveyors, all of which must be moved as operations proceed. Equipment such as generators, cranes, forklifts and welding units may be large, but can still end up missing in a large mining area. That’s because, in part, multiple shifts work in the mines, and staff members can move equipment, then end their shift, causing the next shift of personnel to find that the tools they need are no longer where they left them the day prior. Adding further complexity, a generator may sometimes require fueling or servicing, and mining operations could be delayed unless workers can resolve the problem by locating the generator, or by finding a functioning item to replace one that is out of service.

For the Australian mine, the challenge was in acquiring a real-time location system (RTLS) that could provide location data in a harsh and variable environment (in some cases highly metallic, for example) without the installation of numerous reading devices. There are no permanent structures onsite, and heavy motorized equipment moves around the property as mining takes place, making the installation of readers around the facility an obstacle to vehicles and a burden to move when temporary operations need to be installed elsewhere. Therefore, the company selected Precyse’s proprietary technology, which offers a read range between tag and Bridge Port reader of 800 meters to 1.2 kilometers (2,625 feet to 3,940 feet), thereby requiring a small number of readers that could be temporarily installed in one area, and then be moved when necessary. Precyse manufactures three different versions of its Smart Agent tag, each operating at a different frequency: 433 MHz, 915 MHz or 2.4 GHz. The mine is using 433 MHz—which, Aghevli says, is the predominant frequency choice outside of North America.

CSC’s Jarrod Bassan

CSC deployed the system, which included attaching hundreds of Precyse’s Smart Agent tags, bolted or otherwise fastened to 100 high-value assets, in August of this year. Each tag transmits its GPS coordinates, along with its unique RFID number, at preconfigured intervals. CSC also installed 11 Bridge Ports around the 40-square-foot area.

Inside several maintenance buildings, Precyse has also installed battery-powered beacons (to help the system determine each tag’s location), which transmit their own unique identifiers to the Smart Agent tags via 433 MHz RFID. The tags send that data, along with their own IDs (again via RFID), to the Bridge Ports. The Bridge Ports then forward the received tag data to Precyse’s iLocate software, residing on a dedicated server on the mine’s database, via wired connections. The software determines the item’s location—based on GPS data (if available) and Precyse’s patented location engine that employs mathematical equations to calculate locations—and forwards that information to CSC’s OmniLocation software. The software provides its own GIS and mapping system to display the location data on a map of the mine property, as well as providing alerting when necessary, such as when an item is removed from the site unexpectedly.

The two technologies—GPS and the iLocate software—offer assurance that a tag’s location can be determined, regardless of the environment. For instance, the GPS function is unreliable in covered areas, so the system must rely on the iLocate software to calculate the tag’s location, based on the RFID data. In areas containing a lot of metal, however, the RFID transmissions may not function adequately for the purposes of determining a tag’s location, though GPS data can be collected.

The mobile light towers that the mine employs are similar to those set up for night road construction projects—only much larger—and they must be moved around the facility as projects change. In this case, the company needs to know where they are located so that they can be moved to the proper area each night. What’s more, the firm needs to be able to turn those lights on when required. Therefore, each light’s power generator has a wired connection to a Smart Agent tag, enabling it to receive instructions via RFID in order to turn the generator on or off.

The RFID system, which was taken live in August, is already helping the mine to reduce the labor hours employees spend searching for equipment. Moreover, it helps the company to prevent any delays in production that might result if a necessary tool or piece of equipment cannot be located when needed.

“The system has only just gone operational, but one of the first benefits identified was the ability to remotely turn off the diesel-powered lighting towers in areas of the mine with restricted access,” Bassan says. “This will immediately improve safety (by not requiring personnel to access those areas), extend the period the lights can run without refueling, and also reduce unnecessary diesel usage.”

According to Bassan, the mine has also experienced loss of rental equipment, and will now be fitting the Precyse tracking tags to future rental equipment as each asset arrives onsite. “This will allow them to pinpoint the exact location, provide warnings before the equipment leaves site, and help to avoid hefty penalty fees to the hire companies for missing equipment,” he states.

In the future, the mining company plans to use the RFID tags not only to turn its lights on and off, but also to transmit other data, such as the level of fuel within the lights’ power generators, and to synchronize clocks in the lighting units. The firm is currently in discussions with CSC and Precyse to deploy a similar system at an adjacent mine.