Rugged Computers And High Tech Devices Popular In Mining Industry
by Harold Hough
Anyone who has spilled a cup of coffee on their computer keyboard or tripped over the power cord of their notebook computer knows how fragile the normal business computer is. Yet, thanks to the technology of ruggedizing computers and other high tech devices, portable computers are now out on the frontiers of the mining industry – downloading satellite imagery in the middle of the desert in Mongolia or monitoring operations in dusty ore processing plants.
Much of the Rugged Computer Technology (RCT) comes from military operations. Their search for a computer that could accompany a soldier onto the battlefield and take the shock, shrapnel, and temperature extremes has paid off in mining ready computers.
Much depends on how rugged you need for your computer to be. Do you need for it to survive a drop in a pool of dirty water? Or, do you just need for it to survive a spilled cup of coffee? Does it need to survive a trip on a well maintained haulage road or does it need to survive a six foot drop onto a cement floor? Needless to say, the more ruggedness you want, the more you pay.
Top end rugged computers have to be designed from the ground up for their specific need because some of the common compromises available in normal computers aren’t an option. One obvious one is managing the heat generated by the electronics. Normal computers merely have fans that that can bring in fresh air and blow hot air out. Unfortunately, in a wet or dusty environment, bringing in outside air with water or dust only shortens the life of the computer. Some computers rely on conduction cooling. Most use components designed to operate at higher temperatures. That keeps the heart the computer in an airtight, dust and water free environment.
Rugged computers also need to be able to absorb shock like falling from a small distance onto a concrete floor and still work. This requires a rugged case that won’t shatter, yet absorbs and distributes most of the impact. There are also shock mounts for components. In many cases, the manufacturer eliminates the disk drive, which is more shock sensitive and relies on a solid state drive, which is similar to the common flash drive.
But, some computers go even further. Hewlett-Packard uses a three-axis digital accelerometer for additional protection against operational shock. Its motion-sensing device can sense impending risk to the notebook’s hard drives from sudden changes in motion – before the disks can be damaged by a drop. The three-axis digital accelerometer notifies system software of the danger, giving the system time to temporarily stop the disks by unloading their heads; in this way, information stored on the disks can be protected.
In many cases, special needs may require more ruggedizing. When the US Coast Guard wanted computers that could take salt water corrosion, Panasonic tested their Toughbooks. What they found was considerable corrosion. Panasonic had to go back to the drawing board to include special paints, anti-corrosive greasing and coating, stainless steel screws, airtight gaskets, and sophisticated chemical counter measures against electric corrosion.
The computer screen is another weak point. Not only is it fragile to impact and temperatures, it is not designed for viewing outdoors in strong sunlight. Some companies merely put higher wattage bulbs in the backlight box, which creates a “washout’ at higher light levels. It also drives up power consumption.
Computer companies are now starting to use films over the screens to boost the efficiency of the backlighting, while minimizing the surface reflection of sunlight. It reflects more of the backlighting to the viewer with a layer of reflective material, recycles off axis light to the viewer, and uses polarizing layers to cut down on reflection from sunlight. The film goes directly on the display, which provides additional protection for the screen. It can also be used on touch screens.
Although ruggedized computers are more expensive, they do prove cost effective in many environments in the mining industry compared to the common notebook computers. However, you can save some money by asking yourself what your needs are before you go shopping. With rugged computers, you may end up paying for ruggedness you don’t need.
In terms of marketing, there are three groups of rugged computers: business rugged, semi-rugged, and fully rugged. Fully ruggedized units that can take large falls while operating and survive full immersion in water and mud probably aren’t needed except in the most unusual circumstances – like a field geology expedition up the Amazon. However, if you have a dusty crusher environment where you will need a computer, you will require a computer impenetrable to dust and water. But you may not need the higher level of shock resistance.
A business rugged notebook is probably ideal if you expect to use it in a pickup truck on your mine site. It can’t take being outside in the rain, but it will survive the coffee spill. They can also take abuse like some heat and dust. They also operate with some background motion (probably not on a dirt haulage road).
Semi-rugged computers are intended to withstand some environmental extremes. Semi-rugged notebook PCs typically can withstand a battery of environmental tests (such as vibration, drop, dust resistance, humidity, altitude, and, in some cases, high and low temperature). They may be ideal for field geologists or mining engineers who spend a lot more time in the field.
Ruggedized notebooks aren’t he only rugged electronics found in the mining industry. According to Bev Jedynak of Xplore, many mining companies like Rio Tinto, BHP, and Newmont use ruggedized tablets. She notes people prefer the tablets because they are extremely rugged and they don’t require typing. The user can either input data by touching the screen – or writing with a stylus. Additionally, there are no problems with the hinges becoming damaged, as can frequently happen with rugged notebooks. Originally the notebooks were preferred, because the form-factor of notebook computers was so prevalent. But today with the popularity of tablets among consumers (such as the iPad) and smart phones, the tablet as a form factor is being much sought after.
Tablet or notebook debate aside, ruggedized computers are ideal for the mining environment. They save money because they last longer than regular computers in non-office environments. However, you can save a lot of money by evaluating your specific needs and buying just what you need, and not any more.