Beyond positioning: Technology innovation in mining

With an increasing focus on sustainable, efficient and safe work methods, the Australian mining sector is embracing more technology than ever before. 

Automation and positioning technology supplier Aptella supports the mining industry with an array of solutions such as high-precision machine guidance, fleet management, wireless monitoring, survey drones, and intelligent safety systems.

Having recently rebranded from Position Partners to Aptella, executive marketing manager Gina Velde said the new name is designed to better reflect the variety of solutions and services the business offers.

“Our customers’ requirements have expanded beyond positioning into automation, robotics, safety and monitoring,” Velde told Australian Mining.

Recent years have seen rapid advances in cloud computing, data processing and internet coverage, enabling technology innovation across a range of industries.

“These benefit heavy industries such as mining in the ability to capture real-time information to prevent incidents, improve safety behaviours and monitor mine site infrastructure and terrain for any out-of-tolerance movement that could signal a potential problem,” Velde said.

Internet coverage remains challenging in mine sites due to their remote locations and the topography of an open-cut mine. Aptella supports customers with Rajant kinetic mesh network solutions that enable all machines and assets to work seamlessly on secure, fast networks that are customised to meet the requirements of each site.

With connectivity for all on-site machines, Aptella provides fleet management solutions to optimise production cycles and enable managers to make informed decisions to help meet or exceed targets.

In addition to fleet management, high-precision machine guidance systems for excavators, dozers and drills help to cut rework and make machines more efficient.

The Carlson system distributed by Aptella uses GPS to guide operators to the design, with the ability to see their distance to grade as they work. Used in dozer push applications, drill-and-blast projects and mine site excavation work, the Carlson system keeps managers informed with near-real-time reporting on machine progress relative to design.

“High-precision machine guidance has numerous tangible benefits, from reducing rework, machine wear and fuel usage to increasing safety by lowering operator fatigue and eliminating the need for surveyors to check grade,” Aptella mining business executive manager Andrew Granger said.

Autonomous trucks are helping to increase safety by reducing human interaction with heavy machinery.

“Operator fatigue, speeding and other factors are removed when you introduce autonomy,” Granger said.

Aptella has partnered with SafeAI and is currently working on a project with MACA to deploy 100 autonomous trucks in the coming years.

The mining sector was one of the first to adopt automation and, according to Velde, demand is now growing in other sectors like civil construction and the motor industry.

“With more customers from diverse industries coming to us to discuss their autonomy needs, it was another factor in our journey to rebrand as Aptella, because our expertise has needed to adapt beyond positioning systems,” she said.   

Survey drones are another example of technology used to increase safety and efficiency by removing the need for surveyors to measure on foot. Drones can instead map large areas and control the aircraft safely away from other mine operations.

Last year saw Quantum Systems release its Trinity Pro powered lift fixed-wing solution. Popular in mining for its safe vertical take-off and landing, as well as long flight times for large sites, Aptella has successfully deployed Quantum Systems aircraft to the sector for a number of years.

“Our team was the first in Australia to introduce drones for surveying applications back in 2009,” Granger said. “It’s one of many examples of how we are always working with customers and technology innovators to source and deploy cutting-edge innovation.”

Proximity and collision-awareness technology has particular relevance to mining, where there is unfortunately still a high number of accidents involving heavy machinery and light vehicles.

Automation and increased controls for interaction between people and plant may help in production areas; however, in processing and logistics operations there is still risk due to the use of forklifts and other machines alongside workers on foot.

Advances in the technology have eliminated the need for wearable tags and instead incorporate vision-based artificial intelligence (AI) to automatically identify and alert operators to people.

Blindsight is a unique solution, distributed and supported throughout Australia and New Zealand by Aptella, that has the built-in smarts to identify people and other objects even in challenging, dynamic environments. 

This solution can be fitted to all makes and models of machinery, with a combination of two or more sensors, external voice alarm and a small in-cab alert that gives the operator audible and visual alerts when a person or traffic cone is detected.

Beyond on-site alerts to operators, one of the more powerful benefits of Blindsight is its reporting capability. With near-real-time data being fed into its web-based dashboard platform, Blindsight gives managers insight into on-site safety behaviours.

The system automatically records video footage from the machine’s on-board cameras when the alert is triggered, giving managers eyes on the site to be able to analyse the situation and make informed decisions to improve safety behaviours.

“Unfortunately, despite staff training and safety policies, spotters and other human-based approaches, people still make errors of judgement and put themselves at risk,” Granger said.

“Blindsight helps managers identify their own blind spots when it comes to safety, so they can proactively manage it for better outcomes.”

Another vital element of on-site safety is ensuring the stability and viability of the mine infrastructure and terrain, including pit walls, tailings dams, and mine site infrastructure.

According to Andrew Jones, who manages Aptella’s deformation monitoring portfolio, modern computing technology, coupled with solar energy, can enable continuous monitoring of any underground or open-pit mine site at any scale.

“Traditionally, monitoring technology has relied on optical measuring systems, which are challenging to install and maintain, not to mention expensive at scale,” he said. “Thanks to wireless communication and our ability to use solar energy, we can now monitor virtually any mine site of any size around the clock for many years with little maintenance.”

Alerts can be configured to suit the tolerances and reporting requirements of the site, with tiered escalation of notifications to different stakeholders.

“Because Senceive (wireless condition monitoring) works continuously for many years, it reduces the need for engineers and surveyors to perform manual checks or conduct regular maintenance, and the fewer personnel on site the less risk there is,” Jones said.

With an ongoing skills shortages and the need to mine the earth as responsibly and sustainably as possible, technology offers many advantages to improve short- and long-term outcomes.

“The technology landscape is always shifting and the use of AI, robotics and automation is still in their early stages,” Granger said. “Aptella is ready to start or continue the journey to find and deploy solutions that are best of breed.”

This feature appeared in the February 2024 issue of Australian Mining.

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