The Symbot is a ruggedized, cube-shaped industrial computer that bolts onto an LHD or utility vehicle, but Symboticware president Kirk Petroski reaches for his smartphone to explain the role it plays in underground mining.
“It’s a standardized platform much like an iPhone that has the ability to integrate multiple applications onto one device,” said Petroski. An iPhone serves as a phone, a calendar, a camera, an alarm clock, an iPod, and a source of news, while the Symbot collects and transmits engine performance and exhaust emission data, bucket weight and production statistics. Adding to the functionality of a Symbot isn’t as easy as going to the App Store, but that day may come, too.
Just as you wouldn’t want to walk around with your pockets stuffed with a phone, an iPod, a camera, a calculator and an alarm clock, you don’t want to cram multiple devices on an LHD.
“You can buy point solutions to collect engine data or you can buy something to do location tracking or emission monitoring, but I believe we are uniquely positioned with our platform to handle the integration, which is the big part of trying to install a system,” said Petroski. “When you want to add another application, it’s just a matter of adding a piece of software.”
There are other systems on the market that serve as an integration hub, but most of them are geared to surface operations “where they have GPS, open transmission and it’s all real-time,” he said. Developing a system for the underground environment where you’re limited to Wi-Fi and you can lose your connection is much more challenging.
“That’s where the Symbot’s onboard intelligence comes into play,” said Petroski. “All of the data is time-stamped and synchs up as soon as there’s a Wi-Fi connection available. That’s where we have an advantage over other systems on the market.”
Sudbury-based Symboticware has worked closely with Vale and Xstrata Nickel on the development of the Symbot, and is poised for takeoff.
“It’s no longer a matter of doing one Symbot for a project,” said Petroski. “It’s how do we replicate that for 100 units or 150 units.”
Both mining companies have bought into the concept of a standardized platform and are deploying the technology at several of their mines in the Sudbury area.
The Symbot, explained Petroski, is OEM-agnostic, meaning it can collect engine performance data from Atlas Copco, Sandvik and MTI equipment, all of which use the standard J1939 communications and diagnostics protocol. Caterpillar was more of a challenge because of its proprietary MineStar system, but Symboticware and Toromont CAT are also working together to help miners such as Vale manage their multiple vendor fleets with a common data collection system.
Symboticware started with engine monitoring, but is also capturing equipment safety and maintenance reliability data from ruggedized touchpads mounted in operator cabs.
Until now, equipment operators filled out forms on a piece of paper, recording production data and safety-related information from circle checks.
“The operator would give the piece of paper to the shift boss, the shift boss would review it and give it to the general foreman, and he would give it to a data entry clerk, who would give it to a geologist,” said Petroski. “There were obvious accuracy and timeliness issues with such a system, so we developed an interface that sits inside the operator cab.”
The data is collected by the Symbot and transmitted to the data management system.
“Now, mine management is able to make decisions in a more timely manner based on more accurate information, positively impacting on productivity, safety and maintenance reliability,” said Petroski.
The Symbot also collects data from a Loadrite onboard weighing system, providing mine management with real-time information on the volume of material moved in a given shift.
The capture of load weight data also has implications for safety and equipment maintenance, said Petroski, because “overloads” can blow cylinders and hydraulics.
Last year, Symboticware worked with the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation on a ventilation-on-demand research project to capture emission and air quality data from LHDs at Vale’s Coleman Mine and Xstrata’s Nickel Rim South Mine.
The company currently has 10 full-time staff and contractors, but plans to ramp up to 20 or 25 employees within the next two years. It recently opened an office in Toronto, hired a vice-president of product development, and has an advisory board chaired by technology entrepreneur Robert Lane.
Symboticware is also expanding its client base through partnerships with MTI, CAST Resource Equipment, Continental Mine and Industrial Supply in Saskatoon and U.S.-based TEC Systems Group.