Thermal Cameras in Mining Applications (Case Study: Flir Systems)

If someone wanted to describe a modern copper pit mine, they could do it with three words: complex, busy and huge. Encompassing nearly 2,000 acres, a large copper pit mine can measure as much as 2.5 miles across and over half a mile deep. Mines of this size have miles of roadways and operations that entail an assortment of activities taking place simultaneously, including extraction, processing and transportation. These are distinct operations that require a high degree of coordination.

   For one of the world’s largest copper mining operations, their lack of coordination was costing them inefficiency, even in terms of onsite safety.

Identifying the problem
   Mining officials realized that their continued growth was limited by inefficient communication and coordination between the different processes involved in their overall mining operation. Each operational group in the mining process ran its operation from discrete silos. Communication between silos was based on workers passing information from one silo to the next, and then making decisions based on the information they received. This isolation hindered efficient workflow and forced work to slow or eventually stop. Mining operations officials approached the Network Infrastructure Corporation (NIC) to solve their information management problems, thereby improving the mine’s safety, efficiency and productivity.
   NIC solved the mine’s logistical problems by creating an integrated command center, complete with high speed computer network, Barco video wall and thermal security cameras from FLIR Systems. “The command center structure allowed us to centralize all of communication for each of the mines operational processes in one facility for optimal decision making,” said Angel Chacon, project manager for NIC.

Single command center solution
   Command center dispatchers use visible light and thermal cameras to evaluate and coordinate the movements of a variety of components involved in the mines daily operations. The command center’s 4 x 26-foot Barco video wall allowed dispatchers to see the feeds from a number of cameras simultaneously so that they could track mining operations and act proactively to head off any potential disruptions in production efficiency.

   In one case, dispatchers used FLIR’s PTZ 35 x 140 multi-sensor cameras to monitor the operations of shovels (vehicles with electrically powered shovels that can move up to 100 tons in a single scoop) and haul trucks (25-foot-tall dump trucks that can move 400 tons in a single load) throughout the facility. Command center dispatchers can then see if a particular shovel is operating too slowly, creating a backup of haul trucks waiting to take on a load of ore. If dispatchers see this happening, they can re-route some of the haul trucks to different shovels, keeping a steady stream of ore moving to processing stations.

   Similarly, command center dispatchers use FLIR’s shorter-range PTZ-50 MS thermal cameras to watch over the operations of the mine’s crushers. These devices include conveyor belts that take rock and ore from the haul trucks to mechanical crushers, which make the chunks of ore a more suitable size for further processing.

NIC’s approach to thermal imaging
   During the early stages of the command center’s design and construction, NIC installed a single PTZ 35 x 140 MS in a perimeter position. “It was really just there as a proof of concept,” said Chacon. NIC knew that thermal imaging was a perfect fit for this application, but because of the cost delta between thermal cameras and the standard visible light cameras also stationed around the facility, the mining company needed to see it for themselves. By the time the command center was nearing completion, the mining company’s management agreed to install all 10 thermal cameras.

   Today, they are firm proponents of the utility of thermal imaging in mining operations. “It’s changed the way we do our business,” said Russ Armbrust, technical project coordinator. In the past, they were limited by what they could see with visible light cameras and the naked eye.

Through the dust
   Thermal cameras help command center dispatchers see through the dust created by the crushers night and day. If they see that the conveyor belts are too heavily loaded or that the wheels driving the belts are getting too hot, they can intercede to make sure the system doesn’t break down. NIC installed six of FLIR’s PTZ-50 MS cameras for this very purpose.

   “This mine is a 24/7 operation,” explained Chacon. “Command center dispatchers need to be able to track and monitor their assets night and day – thermal cameras help them do just that.”

   Since thermal imaging cameras make pictures from heat, not light, they can not only track shovels and haul trucks operating in the deepest parts of the mine but can do it with cameras placed along the mine’s perimeter. Four FLIR PTZ-35 x 140 MS cameras are positioned as perimeter cameras. Unlike many thermal cameras posted along a perimeter, these cameras do not face outward for security, they point inward towards the mine. This vantage point ensures that at least a few of the cameras will have an unobstructed view of anywhere mining operations are going on.

The future of thermal imaging in mining applications
   Thermal cameras are proven commodities in a number of applications, including residential security, industrial security and homeland defense. Today, ingenious mining operations are appreciating the ability to see clearly through total darkness, as well as through dust, smoke and light fog. Forward-thinking security integrators like NIC are seizing the opportunity and pairing their customer’s needs with their technological savvy.

David Lee is a writer and editor who has worked with thermal imaging cameras for over some 10 years. He lives in Portland, Ore..