It may sound like something straight from science fiction, but for miners of the future, suits and helmets that monitor their vital signs, regulate their body temperature and communicate to above-ground operators isn’t so far from reality.
Sudbury company Jannatec Technologies is working to develop fully connected, wearable gear that would do all these things to help miners go deeper underground.
“We’re very good at mining, but our communications and how we move ore and how we move things is still back 30, 40 years, so we have to catch up, and we need higher speed data under there,” Jannatec president Wayne Ablitt said. “We have to give the same working tools underground that are above ground, and that’s our goal.”
Jannatec is one of the partners in the Ultra-Deep Mining Network — established by Sudbury’s Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI) — focused on four areas of innovation: rock-stress risk reduction, energy reduction, material transport and productivity, and human health. The network defines ultra-deep mining as mining taking place up to 2.5 kilometres underground.
Last January, the network received $15 million from the Business Led Network Centres of Excellence; an additional $31 million has come from cash and in-kind contributions.
The further underground miners go, the hotter it gets and the more urgent is the need to cool the body. Currently, noted Pat Dubreuil, the network’s research and development program director, some miners in South Africa working at 16,000 feet below ground travel four hours just to get to their worksite. They work in 20-minute intervals, broken up by 20-minute rest periods, to prevent stress on the body.
Jannatec’s wearable communications system could do everything from cool a miner’s body to monitor for collision avoidance to track their movements underground, all while providing instantaneous communication between miners underground and workers above ground.
“By bringing in technologies such as the one that Jannatec’s working on, we’re hoping to improve the output and the productivity of that particular worker, making him able to sustain longer periods of work in their natural environment,” Dubreuil said.
Innovation currently on the market doesn’t allow for miners to go deeper, and only five mines in Canada qualify as a deep mine. But as ore resources are depleted, going deeper is becoming a necessity, and Canadian companies need to be ready, Dubreuil said.
“It’s important to develop that with our own mining and supply groups so that they, too, get their expertise and then they can actually export their knowledge to the world,” he said. “Again, making Canadian mining companies No.1: known for deep mining, known for the technology, known for their knowledge.”
Bora Ugurgel, the network’s managing director, said what makes the network unique is that its focus goes beyond innovation; the goal is to commercialize those new ideas. If research and development never evolves into a tangible commodity that goes to market, it hasn’t really been successful.
“We believe by keeping the mines open longer, the economic impact of that, within the local communities that the mines exist, is exponential in terms of the suppliers that are working in the field and the jobs that they are creating,” Ugurgel said. “So it’s not just the mines themselves they keep longer; the jobs and the know-how that are going to maintain those communities is the real value for Canada.”
Jannatec is already realizing the benefit from network membership. The company is set to hire three more engineers and a technician to fast-track the project and get it to the market more quickly. As the network evolves — partners include academia, industry, small and medium-sized enterprises — there will be opportunities for members to share knowledge and experience amongst each other. But companies that develop the technology retain their intellectual property.
“This is helping us because one of the things we’ve always lacked in our business is the proper resources to build product and get it out to the market faster, because we’re a small company,” Ablitt said. “This is allowing us to behave maybe, instead of a small company, like a mid-sized company, and we’re very excited about this for the long-term investment for our company.”
The Ultra-Deep Mining Network currently has about 50 companies lined up as potential network members. This fall, the group is conducting a pan-Canadian search for additional companies interested in participating in the network.