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Automated Monitoring Increases Life Safety, Data Availability, Productivity and Environmental Well-being

This article originally appeared in North American Mining Magazine.

Real-time data delivers site conditions to stakeholders while reducing staff time in the mine 

Many industries learned to do more with people working remotely, and be more productive with on-site staff, as the world endured a pandemic–keeping people safe, while still operating efficiently. Other industries, such as mining, began the digital transition prior to COVID, with a similar goal of mitigating human presence in dangerous conditions, and also reaping the benefits of real-time data.

Through automated monitoring systems, mining organizations are making crucial life safety and operational decisions. Automating and aggregating different sensor technologies into a single software solution, to enable a multidisciplinary approach to data visualization, analysis, reporting and real-time alarming offer these significant benefits.

Trimble SX12 collecting movement data from prisms installed on high walls in an open pit mine.

Life safety

Prior to automated systems, data typically had to be measured or downloaded manually, requiring staff to be exposed to mine operations on a regular basis. As mining operations are commonly quite dispersed, this process was also extremely time consuming. Automation has both improved personal safety and virtually eliminated fieldwork to retrieve data. 

In addition, monitoring with automated sensors allows data acquisition frequencies to be based on project requirements, rather than balancing the needs of what is required with what is practical and staff availability.

When a potential hazard is detected, timing is critical. Automated monitoring helps save lives because it continuously and quickly delivers the data needed to support informed decision making to improve safety of working environments. Mining safety teams receive alerts with all pertinent details needed to act.

The manual practice of collecting and processing data, producing a report and reacting to that knowledge could take too long to allow mine operations to plan and react to potential hazards. Arming mine safety teams with the data they need by automatically and continuously detecting movement and reporting on it allows them to prepare for a catastrophe, rather than react to it. 

Without the expense of manual resources, operators can continuously run monitoring campaigns and use the data to predict slips, sometimes within a couple of hours. Armed with that knowledge, operations can continue up until the time the team deems it unsafe to do so.


Trimble 4D (T4D) Web Map view of a mining monitoring project showing heat map of displacements relative to project tolerances.


Real-time decision making–data on demand

Whether concerned about a steep mine wall, or the effects of blasting operations on nearby infrastructure, it is critical to know about potential problems sooner rather than later. This is the key advantage of real-time monitoring over manual or campaign monitoring. Similarly, gone are the days of taking measurements, processing the data and interpreting it. Instead, data measurement and processing is completed automatically and results are readily available.

Instead of waiting days, weeks or months until the next survey measurements are taken by a survey crew, stakeholders are alerted to motion when it occurs, allowing more time to determine the right course of action and take appropriate steps to mitigate risk.

Automation has brought numerous improvements to mine monitoring systems, a primary benefit being a reduction in the amount of time staff spend in the field. Prior to automated systems, data typically had to be measured or downloaded manually, requiring staff exposure to mine operations on a regular basis. As mining operations are commonly quite dispersed, this process was also extremely time consuming. Automation has both improved personal safety and virtually eliminated fieldwork to retrieve data. Additionally, monitoring with automated sensors allows data acquisition frequencies to be based on project requirements rather than balancing the needs of what is required versus what is practical.

Automated systems use existing site-wide communications such as Wi-Fi meshes or LTE systems for data transfer, but where this is not available, bespoke systems are provided by manufacturer distribution partners to facilitate communications. A modern approach to data storage and transfer is to use the Trimble Settop M1 total station controller, which stores round measurement data locally. This data is automatically downloaded by the software as it becomes available, ensuring that round measurement data is secure, even if the communication system is offline.

Another benefit to an automated monitoring system is data sharing and transparency for all stakeholders. Choosing a solution that delivers across multiple disciplines in engineering, geotechnical and surveying means stakeholders receive crucial data–needed for making decisions related to life safety, productivity and environmental wellness–simultaneously, to make smart, data-driven decisions.

Most mine monitoring systems benefit from combining different sensor types to build a multidisciplinary approach. Complementary data improves the likelihood of identifying problems with early warning to avoid damage and injury. Legislative mandates and individual company goals for worker and public safety influence the distribution and sensor types selected from the myriad options available today.

Automated measurement chart of prism targets demonstrating movement relative to environmental factors such as temperature in the T4D Web application.

Boosting productivity while dispersing labor

Automated monitoring systems allow technology to do its job, freeing up labor resources to focus on other important mining tasks. Consider these highlights:

  • After initial setup of the automated monitoring system, it runs nearly 100% independently, and at this point, substantial savings are realized from reduced overhead and overtime hours for monitoring campaign work. Additionally, labor spent on manually performing monitoring campaigns now can be utilized elsewhere (i.e. daily survey operations and production).
  • Reducing time staff spends in the mine increases safety, as well as production. Mining operations and logistics are often large and complex. Reducing the time people spend traveling to and from, as well as in the mine, frees up those resources to work on other mining applications.
  • Arming mine staff with real-time data allows them to keep an eye on site conditions and other areas of potential risk, and act upon them as needed. Mitigating or removing issues before they become issues is a huge time-saver.

Environmental well-being with automated monitoring campaigns
Automated monitoring campaigns aid mining operators and engineers in being good environmental stewards. When mine operators have current site condition data at their fingertips, they can best understand surroundings and make informed decisions. Here are examples:

  • Learn how mine operations are affecting the site, and/or causing environmental issues (e.g., water pressure, ground temperatures, other hydrological issues), and put measures in place to counteract issues.
  • Monitor for vibrations during blast operations, give insight on how those operations are affecting the environment and take action to mitigate or prevent problems.
  • Realize how mine decommissioning will affect the surrounding environment, and plan accordingly.
A Trimble GNSS monitoring antenna at an Australian coal mine.


Considerations for starting an automated monitoring system

Here are some considerations when implementing an automated monitoring system:

  • Instrumentation [GNSS, automated monitoring total stations (AMTS), geotechnical devices] based on the project requirements and data to be collected by the monitoring system
  • Communication to send data between instruments and office (site mesh, point-to-point radios, Wi-Fi)
  • Power for instrumentation (solar, wind, battery, AC or DC) to ensure continuous operation
  • Software for data storage, processing, analysis, reporting and alarming (Trimble 4D Control) to provide operations with the tools to make data-informed decisions

Once initial setup is complete, the solutions team should be accessible as needed. For instance, Trimble’s monitoring team works closely with clients to assure a smooth transition from installation to commissioning. The Trimble monitoring solutions worldwide team frequently provides software training and other consultations as needed.

The automated monitoring software solution should interface with all manner of instrumentation present on a modern-day mine site. Cross-compatibility of these different datasets are critical for operations. Data from vibrating wire piezometers and data from prisms should be accessible and usable from the same software environment for a truly holistic view of stability and potential movement. Automation of these measurements and readings increases the amount of data available for decision-making processes.