How the IIoT can be a gold mine of efficiency

In this installment of What Works, enhanced connectivity means better safety, productivity for a Canadian mine.

At a remote site in northern Québec, Goldcorp’s Éléonore gold mine operates as more or less its own small city. More than 1,000 employees are involved in mining 3,500 tons of rock a day.

It’s a cold, difficult environment, and as with all mining operations, worker safety is an ever-present concern. Key to addressing that issue is real-time relay of data, so that those both inside and outside the mine can know exactly what the mine’s environmental conditions are at any moment as well as where mining personnel are.

That kind of data relay depends on secure, reliable wireless coverage underground – an area where Goldcorp saw room for improvement several years ago. The company recognized that in addition to enhancing miner safety, stronger and faster data communication with underground personnel could boost productivity and help rein in energy costs.

“Energy costs are the often the most significant operational costs in a mine, so it was critical to review how to manage this area better,” says Pascal Morin, Goldcorp’s manager of technology and communications. In 2012, the company launched an energy strategy with five-year targets that included increasing energy efficiency by 15% and reducing emissions by 20%.

To advance on its energy targets as well as its safety and productivity goals, Goldcorp implemented Cisco’s Connected Mining solution, at the center of which is a robust underground network. The solution allows Goldcorp to manage communications with personnel via a single, multiservice, secure IP network that workers above- or below-ground can access via a variety of wired or mobile devices (smartphones included).

The implications of improved connectivity underground are huge. “It can take a supervisor up to 30–40 minutes to go back up to the surface,” Morin notes. “If that employee can check email or attend a meeting via video conference underground, the time savings” – and thus the attendant productivity gains – are “quite significant,” he says.

In addition, Goldcorp connected its AeroScout/Stanley RFID tags, worn by all underground employees as a tracking and safety tool and attached to the Éléonore mine’s 80 pieces of underground machinery, with an intelligent ventilation system – putting the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to work underground. “By tracking where employees are, Goldcorp can control which ventilation fans are running, saving money,” Morin says.

The intelligent ventilation system detects miners’ and vehicles’ location, turning on ventilation fans only as needed. Further, the system identifies the type of vehicle passing into an area and adjusts the fans’ speed based on that vehicle’s emissions.

Goldcorp estimates that the new ventilation system will generate between $1.5 million and $2.5 million in savings over conventional ventilation systems. A reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is an additional important benefit. The intelligent ventilation system is proving so successful in the Éléonore mine that Goldcorp is planning to expand its use in its other facilities, including the Cerro Negro mine in Argentina, Morin says.

On the safety front, because the connected RFID devices let Goldcorp track miners at all times, above-ground personnel can identify and respond to emergencies immediately, reducing evacuation time. No longer is there a threat of having to scramble to locate miners and response teams. 

And on a day-to-day basis, having telemetry boxes transmit data from underground equipment to a control room allows for remote troubleshooting and smarter preventive maintenance planning. “We now have the ability to obtain information from pretty much every piece of equipment we have in the mine,” Morin says. The connectivity “gives us the ability to catch anything that goes wrong with the machine sometimes even before the operator knows.”

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