Maestro rolls up its sleeves to facilitate the digital mine
Maestro Digital Mines cofounder and vice-president of marketing and sales Michael Gribbons isn’t above playing barista at the espresso station at the company’s Lively, Ont., office during a visit by CMJ.
In fact, Gribbons not only makes a mean latte, but he also grabs a mop and bucket to clean up a spill made by a colleague in the kitchen.
His attitude seems to sum up nicely the way things work at Maestro, a fast-growing, roll-up-your-sleeves type of company.
With products now in over 125 mines around the world since the company’s inception in 2011, Maestro runs lean, with fewer than 25 employees.
Maestro’s initial offering in the underground mining space was its Vigilante AQS air monitoring solution. Now, its product range includes real-time air quality monitoring, fan and dust monitoring equipment, and also extends into communications solutions that are essential to the digitalization of underground mining.
Being located in Sudbury, Ont., with its dense network of mining suppliers, mines, and R&D and academic institutions, has helped the company develop its portfolio of products, Gribbons says.
“It’s true about the collaboration here.
When we first started the company, we would interview mining companies – determining their current and future bottle necks. Then we’d come back, have a couple more meetings, and we’d show them the product,” he says.
At the end of the process, Gribbons would thank companies for their feedback, but it turns out that Maestro wasn’t getting any special treatment.
“I still remember one gentleman, he said, ‘Mike, don’t thank me.’ I said, what do you mean by that?’ He said, ‘We’ve mentioned this to other companies. But you’re the only ones who listened.’” The concerns that Maestro has heard from mining companies have to do with safety, productivity and efficiency – and increasingly, digitalization.
“We used to promote the Vigilante on blast clearance – get your guys back at the face quicker because you know when the contaminants are gone,” Gribbons says.
“The next stage is forget about getting guys in earlier, let’s get the equipment in earlier, doing some work while they get underground. And the third phase will be let’s totally remove them from heading area when they’re needed.”
Each stage of digitalization adds productivity while enhancing safety, and Maestro has positioned itself as an enabler of this process.
That goes some way toward explaining how the company has established a broad reach and relationships with clients such as Barrick Gold, Newmont Goldcorp, Hecla Mining, Vale and Rio Tinto with a small crew.
Maestro uses outside contractors to stuff its circuit boards, but all IP, design, testing and assembly is done in-house.
In fact, one of the first things it acquired was an environmental chamber, says cofounder David Ballantyne, vice-president of development and technology.
The chamber reproduces the challenging temperature, humidity depth conditions of an underground mine to test components and products.
In the first half of 2019, Maestro launched two products – Zephyr AQS, a more basic version of its Vigilante AQS system that delivers 75% of the applications at half the cost, and its Ethernet I/O, which aims to reduce the number of programmable logic controllers (PLCs) mines need underground. It’s also working on new products, including an LTE version of the Vigilante AQS.
While Maestro started off in ventilation, its Plexus PowerNet product, introduced in May 2017, has become central to its offering. The product was designed to tackle one of the biggest obstacles to digitalization of underground mines – the problem of having reliable communications at the mine face, where it’s needed most.
The active face is one of the most dangerous areas of a mine, but removing workers from the hazards by using tele-remote equipment requires a reliable, high-bandwidth data connection. Most mines use fiber optic technology for communications, but while fiber is great for data reliability and throughput, fiber cable is fragile, and can be easily damaged by machinery or blasts.
It’s also difficult to extend the fragile cable to the heading quickly because it takes skilled hands to install and contractors aren’t always readily available during mine development.
During a presentation at the CIM convention in May, Newmont Goldcorp’s Michel Samovojski, technology co-ordinator for the Canadian northeast region, outlined the limitations of fibe technology in underground mines.
“Extending delicate fiber optic cable to the high-traffic heading where the data is essential is challenging,” he said.
Samovojski noted that machinery sometimes breaks the fiber cable, interrupting connectivity.
“That can pose production delay with the tele-remote operation,” he said.
“Terminating the fiber underground is always a challenge, you need to have that kind of expertise and it consumes a lot of time and it’s expensive. Even to do the splicing, you need to have a special tool for that and with the water underground, it’s a challenge.”
As a result, Newmont Goldcorp’s Borden gold mine in northern Ontario is one of 21 mines globally that has installed Maestro’s Plexus PowerNet as a complement to fiber or Wi-Fi The Plexus system is designed to carry both power and data over a flexible, copper coaxial cable that is durable and rugged enough to withstand harsh underground conditions. It eliminates the need for a separate power cable and can be integrated into any kind of IP based network – Cisco or otherwise.
Maestro’s marketing director Shannon Katary likens the Plexus nodes to Lego pieces that can easily be put in, taken out and relocated as required.
“What you choose to connect the power nodes to depends on the client’s needs,” she says, including IP phones, tablets, air quality sensors, or tele-remote equipment. “The client can use the same infrastructure over and over and it can be customized and built to their standards.”
The Plexus nodes, which connect to wireless access points or various IP devices, can be installed up to 1.5 km apart.
The Borden crew quickly became comfortable with the technology, Samovojski says.
“The Plexus PowerNet is proven technology at Borden,” he said. “It works, it’s easy to install, and easy to advance.”
Borden’s array of connected technology includes tele-remote operation of LHDs from surface, vibration sensors, a PoE+ camera, tele-op laser safety barrier and an IP based blasting system.
“With the connected mine, it’s critical for production to have good connectivity and also to monitor activity and safety,” Samovojski noted, adding that the Plexus technology also helps provide low latency communications at Borden.
“When we connect a bunch of things on the same segment of the network, or even with fiber, we can have latency spikes inside the network, so it’s important to have a good strategy to implement quality of service – to be sure we always prioritize real-time technology like the tele-remote equipment or the camera system.”
With Borden and other clients on board, Maestro is keen on expanding its reach – in the U.S., in Latin America and Africa.
Gribbons wants to more than double the number of mines that employ Maestro products this year.
While the benefits of the company’s air quality and other monitoring systems are easy to understand, the Plexus has been a little more challenging to sell. The main barriers to adoption are mainly the fact that most companies have never seen a solution like the Plexus and don’t know that such an alternative exists.
“Our competition is not a company, our competition is the conventional, old way of doing things,” Gribbons says.
“We aim to change the way that underground mines communicate and to strip out complexity in automation jobs and make configuration flexible and easy. We make the complex simple.”