In the complex, harsh world of mining, the SymBot, a new equipment monitoring platform that communicates by satellite, cellular network and Wi-Fi, is built tough and, as the name suggests, SymBot plays well with others.
The SymBot platform, designed to comply with open standards for industrial automation and systems interoperability, is a durable, energy-efficient hardware/software device that can be applied to monitor equipment information such as location, pay load data and emissions or operating environments.
The device hails back to 2008 when its parent company, Symboticware, received grants from the Ontario and federal governments to develop what was an R&D project into a full-fledged commercial product.
Above ground, a partnership was formed between Symboticware, junior mining firm Baffinland Iron Mines, the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI) and Laurentian University. The project centred on a weather monitoring system on north Baffin Island. The challenge was not just extreme weather; the company’s co-founder and president, Kirk Petroski, explains that the monitoring stations are accessible by helicopter only, which makes in-person site visits difficult, costly, and subject to the vagaries of the local weather.
Hands on/hands free
To make site visits as infrequent as possible, Symboticware managed to cut power consumption on the SymBots down to as little as 10W, and used solar panels to keep the batteries topped up, making the unit almost completely self-sufficient. Also, SymBots’ satellite uplink means that the customers no longer have to visit the station to retrieve the collected data. But most important is that the satellite connection provides two-way communications and the SymBots’ operational parameters can be remotely controlled.
“SymBots allow the researchers or industry personnel to check the status and conditions around the station in real time and to change the parameters as needed,” explains Symboticware’s marketing and sales manager Bora Ugurgel. “So, if you’re sampling every five seconds, you can change that to every two hours in the winter months.”
The utility of up-to-the-minute information provided by these weather stations is clear, says Baffinland Iron Mines’ manager of sustainable development Matthew Pickard. “The data is important to us because it can tell us if we are expecting weather up there, but it can also be useful from the operational side. We have proposed mine infrastructure across a 250 kilometre strike width, so you don’t want a helicopter taking off and then turning around and coming back because it ran into bad weather. That can amount to thousands of dollars in costs to no useful end. Once we confirm the SymBots can work independently in the long, dark, cold winters of North Baffin Island, we hope to expand their use into other remote monitoring functions such as water quality monitoring.”
The Baffin Island project — which has since expanded to include Peregrine Diamonds, another advanced-stage exploration company — is going to be revisited this summer with a second phase. This time, Symboticware will be introducing a hybrid solar-wind power generation system to keep the SymBots charged up, but the software side will also see enhancements.
“We’re trying to reduce costs for our customers,” says Ugurgel. “Satellite data transmission costs are about $2 per kilobyte. With our in-house data compression system, we’d be able to compress the data by 70 to 80 per cent, significantly reducing airtime costs.”
In its underground projects, Symboticware sought out what Petroski describes as early adopters — mines in which a wireless communications infrastructure has been set up.
“The timing was paramount to the success of where we are today,” he adds. “Given that there was a decline in the economy and mining really took a hit, there was a period when a lot of the automation guys, for example the automation superintendent at Vale Inco, were looking for ways to do business better and to bring in a lot of new technologies.”
The SymBots are currently being used by both Vale Inco and Xstrata Nickel to monitor mobile equipment — most notably the two companies’ load-haul-dump (LHD) vehicles. Since the SymBots can draw power directly from the LHD machines they are monitoring, power management is not as much of an issue in this context, says Petroski. On the other hand, connectivity and constant vibration were a concern. There were also more direct threats to effective operation — being hit by large rocks, for instance.
“When you’re placing the SymBot on an LHD, you have to look in hard spots to keep your sensors safe and lasting as long as you can,” explains Ugurgel.