Collisions involving equipment concern all mining operations. Usually these incidents result in damage and downtime for repairs. However, severe incidents can involve injuries and even fatalities. New legislation reflects these concerns. Rules in countries such as South Africa will require collision avoidance and vehicle intervention technology at mine sites.
All these factors occur against the backdrop of a highly competitive industry. Under increasing pressure to identify and exploit new reserves, reduce costs, and boost productivity, mines must also improve safety. Are all these competing interests compatible?
The art of mining is to balance safety and productivity. Success today depends on improving both. Integrated solutions are helping to ensure that this is possible. Hexagon Mining's safety technologies, such as the Collision Avoidance System (CAS) and the Vehicle Intervention System (VIS), are helping to prevent incidents while improving efficiencies and increasing productivity.
By working directly with mining companies, Hexagon Mining ensures product development responds to customer needs. AngloAmerican Kumba Iron Ore, for instance, contacted Hexagon Mining after conducting an extensive risk assessment of its operation to understand major risks at its Sishen mine in South Africa.
"We've done a lot of work to identify where our risks are," said AngloAmerican's Mzwandile Buthelezi. "We needed to comply with regulations in South Africa by June 2019. Vehicle intervention systems must be in place to ensure we have a safe operation."
Together with AngloAmerican, Hexagon Mining defined a step-by-step approach to develop a solution. Buthelezi and Hexagon Mining Product Manager, Fabien Kritter, were instrumental to the eventual launch of HxGN Mine VIS, the world's first vehicle intervention system for mining that detects and prevents collisions by automatically slowing down or even stopping a haul truck if an imminent collision is detected.
VIS takes control of a machine in certain situations if the operator does not react appropriately to a CAS warning. Depending on the situation, VIS can automatically cut the propulsion, apply the retarder or activate the service brakes.
Integrated with CAS, VIS uses the same sensors and user interface thus protecting the customer's initial investment. CAS is currently used in more than 25,000 mining vehicles worldwide. It gives vehicle operators 360-degree proximity detection at any speed and in all conditions via unobtrusive cabin display units. For operators, CAS represents peace of mind. It helps operators work more confidently and productively, especially in poor visibility caused by rain, snow, and fog. It also helps at night when the system becomes invaluable, helping drivers to work more smoothly and efficiently.
"VIS is the ultimate contingency in the event an operator does not respond appropriately to a CAS alert," said Kritter. "It manages the traffic in your pit and, by reacting when and if operators do not, it ensures safety rules are followed. It's an additional layer of safety on top of CAS, and can save you millions of dollars by avoiding incidents, injuries, and fatalities.
"It is also the only Level 9 system currently tested in field operation on the market."
Level 9 refers to technologies that automatically intervene and take some form of machine control to prevent or mitigate an unsafe interaction. In South African surface mines, such technology will become mandatory on heavy machine equipment by June 2019.
Kritter described working on VIS with AngloAmerican as a journey.
"It's very valuable as a product manager to have the feedback from the customer, to know and to work with them. Anglo has done a fantastic job of looking at ‘where do I have a problem?' It identifies a problem in the operation. … which technology you can apply to solve this problem. There was a lot of interaction and to get direct customer feedback has helped a lot to develop this product."
VIS is now being installed in AngloAmerican's Sishen and Kolomela mines where the product is expected to improve more than just safety.
"It's been a very fruitful relationship," said Buthelezi. "We're continuing on this path with Hexagon Mining to ensure we have safer operations. But there's a production aspect to it. If you look at our environment, wherever you have a decline, we've got stop signs to make sure vehicles actually stop at every stop sign and not run out of control.
"But with systems that we're planning on developing and deploying, that can be a smooth process, we can remove some of these stop signs therefore improving productivity. Although safety is top of mind, production is something we also value."
Looking ahead, Kritter is convinced that VIS is a model for future product development.
"I think this is how you can successfully develop products," he said. "It's not being in the office between four walls that you will develop a successful product, it's really with interacting with the customer."
Buthelezi agreed. "It's been a very interesting journey," he said. "We had the ability to exchange ideas. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don't but that's part of the process. But one thing I must say I appreciate with the work that I've been doing with Hexagon Mining, is the fact they are flexible to some of the requirements that come because we'll be on one journey path and then from what we've seen, what we learn during the journey, we change the end goal, the end state, but we're able to maneuver to accommodate some of those requirements.
"Some other suppliers would have said, ‘this is what you wanted, this is what we're going to give you, and nothing else'. So, there's been a good relationship in terms of making sure we get to a product that we're all happy with."
VIS is one more important step in the trend towards human-assist products. It can also be used in conjunction with Hexagon Mining's fatigue-detection, alerting and reporting solution FatigueMonitor. Using algorithms to gauge driver fatigue levels, FatigueMonitor issues alerts based on the operator's physiological state and traffic behavior.
"VIS is fully integrated with Hexagon's safety solution," said Kritter. "We worked closely with an OEM to make this vision of a last-resort system that mitigates the consequences of a collision a reality."
True to Hexagon Mining's commitment to integration, heavy machine equipment operators will have more combined safety and operational context than ever before. The safety portfolio has recently been extended towards personal protection systems, with the release of Personal Alert actively warning pedestrians in mines.
Integrated safety solutions are more important now than ever before, said Kritter.
"The current economic situation compels mines to produce more. I have seen projects that extend 12-hour shifts by 30 minutes to increase production. But the question is, what safety measures have been implemented to mitigate the increased risk resulting from these longer working hours?
"Mines are dangerous places characterized by huge machines with terrible blind spots, heavy traffic, long shifts and monotonous journeys. If mines do not take preventive measures it is only a matter of time before an accident occurs and we live in a ‘zero harm' society where fatalities are not tolerated.
"Yet too often safety during mining operations is seen simply as a cost or investment; this is a short-term view. The cost of an accident in terms of loss of production due to machine downtime, repair and injury can rapidly reach several million dollars. In the worst-case scenario where there is a fatality and the mine must close for a few days, that figure can jump to many millions of dollars.
"The challenge is to find the right balance between production and safety, because they are linked. Technologies such as the CAS, FatigueMonitor and VIS can help operators accomplish their task and come home safe each day, despite intense work pressure."