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Cutting-edge mine tech at first-ever underground show

Sudbury's NORCAT said the event was a success, but it is too early to determine whether this will become an annual event

The feedback has been resoundingly positive for the mining technology exhibition that was held in an underground environment in Sudbury last week.

Don Duval, the CEO of NORCAT in Sudbury, was commenting on the four-day Mining Transformed event where scores of mining supply and mining technology companies set up to showcase their goods and services in an actual mine.

It was a first for Sudbury and for anywhere else for that matter. NORCAT billed the event as the "world's first," and Duval said the response from both the vendors and the investors was positive on all fronts. He said that was expected and he was pleased to see it happen. 

"It validates our hypothesis, you know, does it matter to bring together buyers and sellers in an operating mine environment to help expedite potential procurement technology, adoption and deployment? And the answer is a resounding yes," Duval said.

Although at first glance one might think of the event as a mining tradeshow located in a mine, Duval said that's not what it was.

"So you know, this was not a conference. It was not a tradeshow. This was a technology exhibition, where companies come from all around the world — domestic, international, big or small — to have installations," he said. 

"They can come here, they can see it, they can touch it, they can meet the executives within the technology company, and have a meaningful discussion in an environment that really resonates with what we're trying to build on — that the mining industry is poised for technology transformation. So be here, see it, touch it."

The event had more than 50 exhibitors spread throughout the NORCAT Underground Centre property which included the parking area, the new surface building and the mine itself. 

One of the exhibitors was X-Glo North America Inc., which had a display that demonstrated one of the most basic parts of any underground infrastructure, mine lighting.

General manager Don Bertrand of Markstay explained that the LED strip lighting was not only providing overhead lighting to illuminate the drift (tunnel) for everyday traffic, but it could also be changed in an instant to provide notice of an emergency as well as provide animated directional lighting to let miners know how to get to the nearest refuge station.

Bertrand said the decision to take part in the NORCAT event was a good call. 

"This is by far one of the best shows we've ever attended. It gives our clients the opportunity to actually see the product in the actual environment that we've designed it for."

Bertrand said demonstrating new technology is something he does on a regular basis, but this was the first time he was able to show off how the lighting actually works in the underground setting. 

"We do about eight different shows a year and you get the audience but they don't get the full understanding how the product will actually work in their environment," Bertrand said.

"So on the second day, we've met six different mines that are currently using our existing stuff. And then they saw our new development and it was an eye-opener for them, and all six are very interested in the new technology."

Another exhibitor that drew a lot of attention was TesMan of Sudbury, a company that has developed robotics to make things safer for any miner working near the "face.”  The face is the actual rock face at the end of an active tunnel that is being developed, or drilled and blasted, on a regular, day-by-day basis.

TesMan owner Rod Steele said the purpose of the robotics is to create a safety zone where miners are not standing next to a freshly blasted face to do their work of scaling, bolting, drilling, loading powder and blasting

"So we have a robotic arm to draw operators back from the tunnel. So as we go deeper here, they're not exposed to seismicity and heat," Steele explained.

He said setting up and demonstrating his robotics in a mine environment paid off better than expected. Steele said one of the concerns around heavy equipment is proximity detection.

"Because we are actually underground, we found two other people that are experts in that field. And the level of expertise in a company allows us to use it in our intelligence system. So we actually are now going to form a couple of agreements that probably would not have happened if we were on surface. It's because we're in a tunnel.”

Steele added that by being able to demonstrate their robotics in a robust underground setting, it adds credibility to his company and his product. 

As Steele was speaking, his colleague Billy Bartels was demonstrating the TesMan TLM (tunnel loading master), a robotic device that can be attached to most mobile platforms. It works to clean out drill holes, and then load them with blasting agents and fuses to prepare for blasting which is part of the everyday mining cycle, which can be several times a day. 

Bartels explained that the device does all the work that was previously required of the driller's helper, the miner who stood dangerously close to the face, cleaning any debris out of freshly drilled holes and inserting the powder and fuses.

"So the importance is that it is basically bringing the miner back five metres from the face. It's also taking out the physical labour in the job, and letting the machine do all the work. So you get more out of your miner, less injuries, and you can get a full career out of a miner," Bartels said. 

He said along with the safety considerations, the robotics on the loading machine work harder and faster.

"Yes, so this is much more productive with bringing cycle times down every shift. And like I said, a lot more safety."

Another underground exhibitor who said he was pleased with the event was Dean Lupini of Key Logic Software Solutions of Sudbury. This company produces software that creates 3D mining displays that help mine planners. 

Lupini said it made a difference to show off his services in the underground environment. 

"So the feedback we're getting is definitely this has a lot of applications; the technology is eye opening. We're taking things that you generally see on surface like augmented and virtual reality as a standalone system, and we're bringing it underground; we're connecting it to surface in real time," Lupini said.

"And we're showing that it can actually be used in the mine. So the applications are really endless. It's really up to our clients to say, hey, my product would work great with this, or we can benefit from the tool set that you offer."

As the event wrapped up, NORCAT DEO Duval said he was pleased with the event, but admitted it took a great deal of work. He said NORCAT will soon do a debriefing on the event to determine when and how the next underground exhibition takes place. He said it is not certain whether it will become an annual event.

"We don't know that. We want to make sure that there's not an oversaturation of events" Duval said.   

"Doing things on an overly frequent basis kind of dilutes the value and it creates fatigue. So we're going to solicit the feedback and validate anecdotally what we've heard over the last three and a half days and use that to inform where we go.