A harsh environment, 24/7 operations, hazardous working conditions, real-time data transmission from remote areas –these are some of the factors that create challenges in the mining industry to keep people and equipment safe, while getting the job done as efficiently as possible. To address these needs, technology developed during the past 20 years for use on the Space Shuttle and for other space missions has been adapted commercially for terrestrial mining.

At SPAR International in Colorado Springs in April, a high–precision, 360-degree, 3D laser scanner called OPAL-360 (obscurant-penetrating autosynchronous LiDAR), along with a toolkit of algorithms and software named 3DRi (3D real-time intelligence), made its debut in the booth of Neptec Technologies Corp., an Ottawa, Ontario-based spinoff of Neptec Design Group. Neptec’s original TriDAR technology was used in space to provide alignment and positioning data to assist with autonomous rendezvous and docking maneuvers, and its laser camera system (LCS) was used on shuttles to perform in-orbit inspections of heat shields.

To operate in space, the laser scanners were required to function in extreme temperatures while transmitting and processing data in real-time. Neptec’s OPAL technology was developed as a means to use its LIDAR sensors on helicopters faced with brownout conditions in desert operations. When Neptec Design Group decided to look for commercial opportunities with similar needs, mining rose to the surface.

“Mines operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in all kinds of weather. OPAL 360 opens up many opportunities for using LiDAR data intelligently, under very harsh conditions,” said Michael Jamieson, a Neptec applications engineer. “With the aid of OPAL and 3DRi, safety and productivity are enhanced throughout the entire operation. We stress the opportunities to improve safety by using the scanner to detect all objects, including people, and scanning from a distance of over 2 kilometers to assess slope stability. This capability eliminates the need to send a person into a potentially dangerous situation before adequate knowledge is acquired. And shaving a few seconds off the time it takes to load a truck, avoiding accidents, and reducing delays result in significant cost savings.”

Neptec worked with several mining companies during the development of OPAL 360. For example, the truck-spotting tool was tested to help trucks park next to shovels, which speeds loading. Also, by balancing the load, there is less spillage, so less time is needed for cleanup, and by avoiding obstacles, there is less tire damage.

This wealth of information is made possible by 3DRi, which performs real-time change detection and object recognition for mission-critical applications. “What makes this product particularly useful and unique is that we process in real-time, unlike most survey-grade sensors that require post-processing of the data,” said Jamieson. “We also publish only the data that you subscribe to from our 3DRi suite, such as scan data alignment, object detection and tracking and change detection. Data is published on a network so any user can access the data they need, whether that is a full point cloud or just object detection. You can have as much or as little as you want.”

The OPAL technology is also applicable to other markets, with different versions in the series offering scan ranges of 400 meters to 2,700 meters with a data acquisition rate of up to 200,000 points per second.  Customers can select a product that best fits their needs.

“The obscurant-penetrating capability is valuable in a variety of areas, such as mobile mapping of road side assets, DOT, military operations, security and change-monitoring for high-value installations. We currently have a product under development to assist helicopter pilots flying in brownout conditions in the desert,” said Michel Dunbar, Neptec’s director of business development. “Although our focus thus far has been North America, we are getting widespread attention and intend to offer the OPAL-360 worldwide.”