CSIRO develops hands-free technology for mining repairs

The CSIRO has developed hands-free technology which allows mining technicians to remotely repair equipment.

The need for skilled experts to repair advanced mining equipment meant they often had to be flown in to remote sites to fix the equipment. This can be a costly process as it renders equipment inactive while the expert is flown in and mining operators also lose productivity.

The CSIRO information and communication technology team and the Minerals Down Under Flagship developed a solution to this — remote mobile tele-assistance (ReMoTe) technology.

“One of the things that is happening is that the mining operators in mine sites are required to maintain and repair equipment that is more and more sophisticated and they don’t have the skills to do that and they often have to fly in an expert and fix the machine,” Leila Alem told Computerworld Australia, principal research scientist at CSIRO.

“That leads to a loss of productivity because often an expensive piece of equipment is spending time not being used and then you also have the time lost because you have to wait for the person to come in from flying in in person and do a very simple maintenance job and go back.”

CSIRO’s solution works in real-time and requires two operators — one being the on-site operator and the other being the expert to provide guidance. The expert can be located anywhere in the world, which saves time and money as he or she doesn’t need to physically be at the mining site.

Both users of the ReMoTe system wear a helmet with a camera mounted on the front and a near-eye display unit. The computer component of the system is attached to a waist belt which is strapped onto the user.

Each operator is able to view what the other person is looking at through the near-eye display. The on-site operator can also view the expert’s hands through the near-eye display. This visual aid allows them to see exactly what they need to do to repair the equipment.

ReMoTe, being a complete hands-free system, can be operated without any training. It has also been developed to operate in harsh environments, such as dirty and dusty areas and places where ventilation and lighting are poor.

The product has been in development for more than two-and-a-half years and it is now in a pre-commercial phase. Throughout the system’s development, Alem said the team has encountered several issues.

“There’s a host of engineering problems that were new to us... Those problems were extremely important because without solving them we didn’t really have a chance to do a proper deployment,” Alem said.

A trial site in South Australia has also uncovered other issues, such as problems with networking and firewalls.

“Because this is a system that works between two stations, you need to actually have the proper bandwidth for the system to work,” Alem said.

While the National Broadband Network (NBN) would help with some of these bandwidth problems, Alem said many mine sites are located in remote areas which would not be connected to the NBN.

“We’ll have to actually use satellite, probably, or a private network of the mine site, so we might need to have a dedicated network for that application just because of the remoteness of where this system would need to be used,” she said.

“If we had access to the proper bandwidth then we could deploy this system easily, but we can’t just assume that so we have to have our own network infrastructure and optimisiation algorithms so that we can still deliver that service, even in areas that don’t have access to the NBN.”

The trial also uncovered problems with battery life — batteries only had a lifespan of two hours, while a shift at the mine lasts eight hours. While the system would be unlikely to be used for the entire shift and batteries can be recharged, Alem said the desirable outcome is for a battery which lasts at least eight hours so it is a truly ubiquitous solution.

The research team is currently in the process of integrating the ReMoTe technology with a panoramic display system for remote operation, which has been developed at the Virtual Mining Centre at CSIRO in Brisbane. The team is also working with researchers from the Institute of Communication, lnformation and Perception Technologies at Scuella Superior Sant’Anna in Italy.

CSIRO is now working on commercialising the system and is in talks with a partner to help with this.

“We’re at the stage where they have submitted their business plan and really talking about flooding the market soon,” Alem said.

Follow Stephanie McDonald on Twitter: @stephmcdonald0

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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