The black box of mining
Data and transparency will help make mining “safer, cooler and more efficient,” according to Newtrax Technologies CEO Alexandre Cervinka. The Quebec native sat down with Solid Ground to talk about Newtrax’s “black box of mining”.
Can you give us a brief summary of what you do at Newtrax?
Newtrax has been developing a variety of Internet of Things devices, which monitor people, machines and the environment in underground hard rock mines, for the past 10 years. You know the black boxes that monitor everything on an aircraft? Well, we’ve got the only black box in the mining industry that’s compatible with all the OEMs.
How do these devices make underground mining safer and more efficient?
Transparency. People underground simply don’t have access to the information they need to make the best decisions. So we’ve put a system in place that measures everything and makes that information available to workers and managers to empower them with the insights they need. That’s what the devices do that you use for people, machines and monitoring the ground, air and water levels. They measure the mining process, make the entire chain visible and achieve transparency.
When you started, Newtrax had nothing to do with mining. When and why did you pivot?
My background is in electrical engineering. Twenty years ago, when I graduated from McGill University in Montreal with some friends, we tried to launch a variety of ventures, creating wireless sensor devices to monitor all sorts of stuff. We were scattered all over the place. On one of these projects, we came across a professor who had PhD students trying to apply wireless technology to under-ground hard rock mines in Quebec and an experimental mine in Val-d’Or. We started working with them, and one thing led to another, and then in 2008 we decided to focus 100 percent on mining.
Why is it better to get data directly, rather than at the end of a shift?
A good example of an application for which real-time connectivity and monitoring is important is evacuation notification and management. If there’s a fire underground, you need to receive the evacuation notification as soon as possible. Historically, mines have used stench gas, or blinking lights if there are lights in that part of the mine. This can take 20 or even up to 40 minutes to reach every area. Then, for maintenance, you’ve got some alarms like low tyre pressure that you need to act on as soon as possible, or you’re going to lose your tyre. In terms of productivity, you’ve got applications like post-blast re-entry, where you need to know what the gas levels are in various areas before you can re-enter.
Why has underground mining lagged behind certain sectors in adopting automation and digitalization?
The answer has several vectors to it, but the first one is the access to GPS. GPS is a satellite-based system that doesn’t work underground. Right off the bat, all the solutions that depend on GPS on the surface are not available underground. Then you have the problem with communications. It’s a classic in the telecom industry that the most expensive and complex part is the last mile connecting the core network to each house. And underground, by the very nature of the mining process, there is a new last mile every week. And then you have the fact that the mine sites have a heterogeneous fleet from multiple OEMs and the industry has not had a very open architecture when it comes to data. That’s one of the things that our black box does – it basically forces all the data to be open.
What are the greatest challenges facing modern underground mining, and how do your solutions help address them?
When it comes to attracting people to work at a mine site and underground, we help by making sure the environment is safer. Nobody wants to work in an unsafe environment. It’s also very frustrating for the younger generation not to have access to the digital tools in their work that they’re used to in their everyday life. We provide them with the tools that they expect to do their job effectively and safely.
Home: Montreal, Canada
Title: CEO Newtrax Technologies
Family: Wife Valerie and two sons, Jacob and Zac