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Sensors are a component of almost every industry as they offer a way of monitoring various processes, the working conditions, whether there is a risk of occupational hazards, or whether any equipment is likely to fail. They not only provide a way of keeping the personnel safe, but they also provide companies with ways of saving money by predicting when maintenance is likely to occur, or when an issue does occur so that it can be fixed rapidly without causing too much downtime. In this article, we take a look at the sensors which are used in the mining industry.
There are a lot of potential hazards in the mining industry, from the environmental conditions within the mine to exposure to hazardous particles and even explosions. There is also the potential for many things to go wrong with the machinery, in which a lot of downtimes could occur due to the cumbersome nature of the machinery used. So, sensors play a vital role in both safety and maintenance in the mining industry.
Sensors for Safety
Given the nature of the work performed in the mine, there are many sensors that are used in a mine to cover various safety aspects. These range from gas sensors all the way to personnel sensors which measure the tiredness levels of the workers within the mine.
One of the most common types of sensors is the gas sensor. There are many different gases that can escape from veins within the rocks during excavation. Many of these gases can be harmful to the workers if they are present in sufficient quantities (such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen chloride, or hydrogen cyanide) and gases such as methane can present an explosion risk—especially when it is both colorless and odorless. Sensors that measure the gas levels are present on both the personnel and the machinery in the mine to ensure that both the areas of work and the personnel are safe.
Another aspect that can cause harm is dust. The build-up of dust within a mine is commonplace due to the excavation or exploding of the surrounding rock. The build-up of large amounts of dust can cause respiratory issues to the workers in the mine, as well as anyone within the local vicinity of the mine. Dust also contains a lot of small particles—just like the smog you see in cities—which are very harmful to humans. So, to ensure that the workers are not being exposed to an unhealthy concentration of these particles, handheld sensors are used to measure the levels, and if necessary, be used as a gauge to see whether preventative/dust reduction measures need to be taken.
Workers are also fitted with sensors that measure their levels of tiredness. Given that a lot of workers need to operate heavy machinery, they can be a danger to themselves and other workers around them if they are feeling sleepy—much like a driver driving on the road is. So, to ensure that workers are not at risk of falling asleep, or losing too much concentration from fatigue, sensors composed of tracking devices that monitor both the level of fatigue and levels of distraction are used on the workers in a mine.
Aside from safety, there are many different operations within both open pit and underground mines which are benefitted by the implementation of sensors. One common example is the use of proximity sensors on the heavy machinery and vehicles used within the mine. The sheer size and weight of this machinery can cause damage if they collide with other machinery or the surrounding environment (which could cause rocks or debris to fall if there is a sufficient impact). Proximity sensors are fitted to all vehicles to alert the driver when the vehicle/machinery is close to crashing into an object/other machinery and alerts the driver through both visual and audible warnings.
Sensors are also used to prevent rock falls after operational measures have been put in place to keep the surrounding rocks in place. This is the case for both pit and underground mines where huge rock faces and exposed, potentially unstable rock faces/ceilings are present during the mining operation, respectively. Some of the measures put in place include automated temporary roof supports (ATRS), mobile roof supports (MRS), and automated roof bolting systems, and sensors can then be employed to measure if there is any movement within the rock face over time and to inform the operators if further measures need to be put in place.
One of the most innovative uses of sensors in the mining industry in recent years is the switch towards automated mining operations. While this has been helped along with the implementation of the Internet of Things (IoT), Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and advanced data analysis methodologies, sensors are still at the heart of the data collection processes. The sensors are the key components that enable all the relevant data to be analyzed before it is processed to spot anomalous trends in the data—which can represent potential downtime in the operations. Any downtime can then be planned for rather than being unexpected. Aside from predictive and preventative maintenance, automated processes within the mine(s) can be used to control unmanned vehicles and perform the controlled explosions/excavations, which in turn not only increases the operational efficiency of the mine, but also the safety.
Sources and Further Reading
- Environmental Sensing Instruments in Mining Industry - Mining Safety