Safe and efficient navigation of underground mines is naturally a challenge for many equipment operators.
Underground environments are dark and dusty. They are also often a labyrinth of tunnels and operators can obviously not see through walls.
Communication is another challenge for underground operators, who have traditionally relied on walkie-talkies or radios to communicate with their fellow workers.
The limited ways to communicate potentially creates safety hazards and impacts productivity because of a lack of efficiencies.
Mining companies have explored opportunities to improve awareness in underground mines by investing in Wi-Fi technology or other modern infrastructure for communications.
But challenges remain, particularly the significant cost of these projects, which is beyond many mining companies.
Swedish technology company Mobilaris Mining & Civil Engineering is convinced it has solved many of underground mining’s navigational challenges with Mobilaris Onboard, an innovation launched in 2019.
The solution runs on a modern tablet computer mounted inside a machine’s cabin and enables any underground miner to know what is going on in the mine.
Mobilaris Onboard collects all of the real-time information about personnel, equipment and vehicles from a centralised Mobilaris Mining Intelligence software solution.
The information, including mine maps, is shown in 3D and is stored locally so operators can use it even when they are outside of network coverage.
Mobilaris VP strategic product management and business development Hans Wahlquist says Mobilaris Onboard delivers a paradigm shift by giving underground miners a level of situational awareness not previously possible.
“People are smart but without information they can’t do much,” Wahlquist tells Australian Mining.
“This solution explodes the amount of information that is available and I think it is what’s going to make situational awareness take off in underground mining.
“Situational awareness has been around for several years in the control rooms of more developed mines. But there were still only a few people that knew what was happening, and it wasn’t the miners.”
Mobilaris Onboard provides unique situational awareness of the whole mine, with a view like what is seen in a mining operations centre on a commercial tablet.
Wahlquist, who describes the solution as “Google for your mine”, says now almost anyone can navigate safely to a location or to a moving asset without any specific knowledge about the mine, just like a GPS-enabled car.
As a mobile radar, Mobilaris Onboard’s traffic awareness feature enables drivers to avoid meetings with other machines that would have previously created congestion and impacted on productivity.
As Wahlquist says, operators can now “see through walls” to improve their awareness of oncoming traffic to avoid these meetings.
Importantly, Mobilaris Onboard also makes underground mines safer. In the case of an evacuation event, for example, drivers use the increased awareness to navigate to the closest rescue chambers.
The technological breakthrough that makes Mobilaris Onboard possible is a patent-pending algorithm called Mobilaris Hybrid Positioning, the foundation of the overall solution.
Based upon sensor fusion, artificial intelligence and advanced mathematics, the algorithm allows for self-sustained positioning of a vehicle with five to 10 metres accuracy without any dedicated infrastructure for positioning.
“The algorithm takes away the need for infrastructure to navigate underground, but it does need the infrastructure to communicate position to others and get their position back,” Wahlquist says.
“We need the network to exchange information, but we don’t need it to exchange position. If we lose connection we will still know where everyone is before we lost it.”
Swedish miner Boliden was the first company to upgrade to Mobilaris Onboard at the Kristineberg mine in Sweden.
Kristineberg mine manager Andreas Suup says Boliden has realised many benefits with Mobilaris Onboard.
“Before, we had to drive our co-workers around and show them the ropes before allowing them to be self-sufficient in the mine,” Suup says.
“With this system we have realised that we can use positioning, type that into the Mobilaris Onboard system, and they will get a waypoint in the system showing them exactly where to go. It means that our co-workers can get to a production site in short notice.”
Suup also believes a tool like Mobilaris Onboard will help mining companies like Boliden attract the next generation of workers by taking the industry to a higher level of digitalisation.
Wahlquist agrees and adds that experienced operators at the Boliden mine now can’t work without the solution either.
“I think it is a good example of what you can do with modern technology and innovation,” Wahlquist says.
“It is so fantastic to see how easy miners quickly grasp the functionality of Mobilaris Onboard and how they start to depend on it. Once in their hands, it is as impossible to remove it as it would be to take the smartphone from a teenager.”
Wahlquist is confident the Australian market will join its Scandinavian counterpart by introducing the solution to underground mines around the country.
In fact, this process has already started for Mobilaris, according to Wahlquist.
“The needs and the requirements from the market are huge so we are trying to do it at a pace that we can cope,” Wahlquist says.
Mobilaris Onboard is one of the key technologies in Epiroc’s 6th Sense Transport solution, which focuses on optimising the movement of material through the customer value chain.
Through Mobilaris’ partnership with Epiroc, Australian mining companies will be able to access the Mobilaris Onboard solution.