Control and Safety
Mining, construction and civil works have some danger inherent to the operation of the associated heavy machinery. One of the ways to avoid this is to take the individual out of the dangerous situation. Remote Control Technologies Pty Ltd (RCT) has developed many devices and systems that help take the person out of the equation, but at the same time uses their expertise and experience on the job site to control heavy machinery and systems. In this they have developed specific solutions for the mining, mobile equipment, earthmoving, transport, agricultural, construction and materials handling industries.
RCT has grown to supply countries all over the world including: Armenia, Austria, Botswana, Brazil, Burkina, Canada, Chile, China, Egypt, England, Fiji, France, Germany, Ghana, Guinea, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Mali, Namibia, Norway, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Peru, PNG, Russia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, South Africa, Thailand, Tanzania, Turkey, USA, West Indies, and Zambia.
In each of these nations and markets, RCT’s marketing and development teams are well known. RCT employs over 130 personnel in their branches in Perth, Kalgoorlie, Mt Isa and their offices in both Brisbane and Melbourne. For a time, the company became part of a public company, but was eventually bought back, and is currently privately held by a small group of share holders. In 1987 they had opened up an office in Perth in order to support their expanding customer base, but 1988 marked the year that RCT entered into the remote control game. “We hadn’t taken on the remote control of mining equipment until that point, and what we introduced then became our market leading Control Master brand ,” says Phil Goode, Senior Business Development Manager at Remote Control Technologies. By the end of that year RCT had engaged their abilities in the international market. “We did a couple of significant international projects that year, we went into New Guinea where they had had a mine collapse, and we remote controlled their bulldozers so that they could continue to operate the mine without the risk to people.” This event, Goode says, pushed the international presence and growth of the company by showcasing their already formidable abilities.
It isn’t a game
“From time to time, people have compared what we do to playing a videogame,” says Goode. “I guess you can say it is a kind of big boys toys, so the operation of the remote systems is a bit similar to arcade gaming for sure,” he chuckles. He may make light of what they do, but from an operational and technological aspect it is very complicated. Goode thinks that those newly entering into the industry might have a good grip on how the controls work, but it is the veterans who really know how the machines operate. “They won’t understand the machine or the mines, so the best thing we say is to put the youngsters with the experienced workers who know how the mine and the machines work. This way you get the best of both worlds,” he says. The veterans learn from the younger workers, and the younger workers have the access to the knowledge base of the veterans of the field. He jokes that one of the biggest differences on the field between video games and what their remote control systems can do is that, unlike videogames, you really only have one life. “Our kill button really has disastrous consequences,” he says with a laugh.
Making it tough
RCT has been around in one form or another for almost 40 years. This means that they have been providing services to the mining and earthmoving companies even before the advent of remote technology. So while Goode talks about the old hands leading the young ones, the company itself seems to hold the dual role of being both the old and the new. “Our Managing Director Bob Muirhead had founded a service company in Kalgoorlie in 1972,” says Goode. “At that time we were doing machine auto electrical servicing there. He then took on apprentices to grow his business – and I was one of those first apprentices.” He also says that many of the executive team that now supports RCT began in very similar roles. Early on, clients began to inquire if they could provide engine protection systems for machines working within the mines. “This question became one of our strongest brands, the Muirhead® Protection range. Bob invented the engine protection systems and we started producing these, and this was probably the beginning of our shift to becoming an original equipment manufacturer for electronic and electrical control systems,” he says. The hardiness of this particular range – and this applies to all of the products that RCT designs – is evident from the very first glance. “We cut our teeth on underground mining equipment in Kalgoorlie back in the 70s,” Goode says. “It was quite a tough industry then for machines and people, so the equipment had to be very robust, it had to be very capable of surviving in a harsh environment. So that really became part of our design criteria, and it has continued right through to today.” What has changed is that now they are taking more advanced, smaller electronic devices and ruggedizing their components, outer shells, processors, onboard printed circuit boards, and cameras to survive on mining equipment. “Whilst it is quite sophisticated and in some cases it is not very hardy, we have to make it hardy,” says Goode. “It has got to survive hanging off a bulldozer or an underground loader.”
He says that this recognition for resiliency is one of the factors that have allowed the RCT brands to expand over the years. “We build it from the machine point up. This allows us to combine hi-tech into containers and enclosures so that they can survive on a mining machine. If you take many high-tech companies, and as we talked about – video games – it’s very high-tech, but it will never survive in the real world in an underground mine.” Goode admits that there are comparable companies that do what they do, but many of them are dedicated to the military and aeronautics industries. What they have done is maintain good communications with those companies, in order to take their lessons learned and apply them to RCT’s own product range.
What safety really means
Safety for RCT is not as simple as removing individuals from situations where they can get hurt, although their solutions do that – it is about the long term health of the work force, Goode points out. “Sure they are safer if they are not inside a 100 machine inside a mine, but what you have to consider is that they are not sitting on top of a machine that is shacking and vibrating. Over the years this can cause repetitive strain injuries to them. This can affect everything from hearing and sight, to back complaints. There is a lot more emphasis on that, which isn’t straight out danger, it is more occupational repetitive strain,” he says. There are numerous studies that not only back up what he is saying but often go a bit further. Some have stated that vibrations, over a life time, can cause nerve and circulatory damage. These effects can be likened to severe frost bite, where the circulation to digits and extremities are completely cut off – sometimes resulting in amputation.
RCT’s product range has everything from engine protection systems, and fleet tracking positioning, to complete remote control of heavy vehicles. “There is a lot of attention on what we can do with remote control vehicles on the surface, but their also a lot of interest in seeing what we can do with remote control drills. We are the leading integrator for Rio Tinto, who are doing the remote control and autonomous blast hole drills as part of their corporate initiative to automate mining,” says Goode. He says it is a lot of fun showing potential clients what they have achieved with these systems. Their abilities have also drawn the attention of the universities operating in Perth, who make annual visits to RCT facilities in order to see just what RCT can do. Goode says that they have grown this relationship over the years, and found many great employees coming from the ranks of the local universities. “One of the reasons that we have this relationship with the schools is that a lot of the engineers are studying mechatronics, but not a lot of them are going to get the opportunity to work in that area within Perth – well, I think it is more like not a lot of them see that you can work in these areas in Perth,” he says.
Australia is known for building hardy mining systems, and RCT adds highly technical and sophisticated to that list. While the technology is constantly changing, Goode sees that as an opportunity for the company. With the development of more and more power behind mobile computing systems, he sees that things like their EarthTrack system will also become more accessible and interactive than ever before. “With EarthTrack, I think the important thing is that results can be immediate, and ongoing,” says Goode. Knowing your operators are getting the best out of there machines and the mine site is safer, but much more cost effective. The technology that RCT has developed does that in its markets and industries. Such investments improve performance for both a client and their workforce. Technology constantly changing means innovation is always occurring, and RCT is at the forefront of that wave – they have a long list of firsts, and that list is going to continue into the future.