Tough sensors keep industry operating in Canada’s harsh conditions

Canada’s best-known industries are also some of the most difficult to work in. Mining, forestry, oil and gas – these sectors can take their toll on employees, and the equipment they use.

Many of these industries use sensors to increase safety and equipment reliability, but they can’t use just any sensors. These devices have to be able to withstand some extreme conditions, like heat, vibrations and hazardous chemicals, and still work around the clock.

Over the last couple of years, some enterprising companies have developed “tough sensors,” which are rugged devices that operate in intense scenarios.

“In harsh and dirty environments the performance of machine vision and monitoring systems can quickly deteriorate,” says Nima Nabavi, CEO and founder of ExcelSense Technologies, a British-Columbia based company that sells ToughEye, a line of rugged cameras.

One of the main issues with these sensors is not the risk of getting crushed by falling debris – most are mounted out of harm’s way – it’s dust. If the sensor can’t see, it can’t work. ToughEye’s technology can clean itself when the going gets dirty. “It has a technology that is similar to your eye,” says Nabavi.

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Nabavi, a mechanical engineer, started ExcelSense after overseeing the design and operations of optical monitoring systems in open pit mining, where operators use cameras to know where shovels and trucks are located, as well as to monitor the safe and efficient operation of conveyor belts and other equipment.

The traditional cameras he used required equipment downtime in order for the lenses to be cleaned. This became costly because if the sensor was mounted near a conveyor belt, above a crusher or on a giant shovel, cleaning had to be performed up to several times per shift, and under dangerous conditions.

Nabavi realized there was a niche to fill, and founded ExcelSense in 2014. His company devised a sophisticated camera with few moving parts that could clean itself in seconds without the intervention of a crew.

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The ToughEye cameras are housed in a rugged metal casing that safeguards the inner mechanism. The lens, which extends out from the bottom of the casing, is protected by a glass shield that has been chemically treated to resist scratching. When the operator sees their view is obscured, they activate the cleaning operation, and a powerful motor retracts the lens up over a polymer wiper, cleaning it much like a window-wiper cleans a windshield.

They tested their prototype in a saw mill in northern B.C., installing it directly above a ‘quad-saw,’ a four-disc cutting device that carves logs into lumber and rotates at 2,000 revolutions per minute (RPM). Cutting lumber, of course, creates a lot of dust. “We figured if it worked there, it would work anywhere,” says Nabavi. The ToughEye passed with flying colours, impressing the operators so much that they not only purchased the technology, they contacted other mills and recommended the system.

The advantages of the ToughEye are numerous. The camera remains functional throughout a shift, eliminating the potential for equipment being damaged by blockages. Camera maintenance time is virtually eliminated, and crews are not exposed to dangerous situations. While a device costs more than a conventional camera, it pays its own way quickly. “The ROI is around two weeks,” says Nabavi.

GE gets tough

GE also knows the value of tough sensors. It recently launched Hawk-i, a robust application critical to the new ways that petroleum companies drill for oil and gas.

Times are rough in the oil patch and in order to save money and time, oil companies now launch up to eight wells from a single location, simultaneously fracking and completing the wells. Trouble is, there can be 50 different vendors on site at the same time and identifying non-productive time is a big challenge. If one slips up, everyone may have to shut down, which could cost the operator more than $10,000 per hour in lost activities.

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The solution is having sensors tell headquarters what’s happening at all times. Several service companies do provide monitoring systems that can supply prompt warning – they are designed with a combination of pressure gauges and electrical sensors that indicate open or closed valves. But the systems weren’t originally devised for multiple wells, and the valve indicators are susceptible to vibrations, causing false readings.

GE Oil & Gas built a better system. The Hawk-i application has hardy, vibration-resistant sensors that measure the fluid pressure gradient inside each well, as well as which valves are open or closed. This tells the operator in real-time exactly what service is being performed – whether it’s fracking, flowback or coil tubing – and whether everything is going well, or not.

In October 2017, the Hawk-i application was officially launched. Thanks to tough sensors, oil operators can now count on much higher reliability and functionality. “There’s been a lot of interest, and we expect a lot of early adopters for the application,” says Zeyad Al-Ssalmani, a representative with GE’s Customer Innovation Centre.

Playing with fire

There are plenty of other companies using tough sensors, too. For instance, an ammonia plant operator, one of GE’s clients, was having performanceQUOTE-Ssalmani V3 issues with its flame sensors, the devices that can ‘see’ whether the pilot light in its hydrogen reformer is on or off.

Knowing whether the light is working is critical to safety. If a burner flameout occurs within the reformer, the operator has to immediately cut off fuel.

A hydrogen reformer is in an especially harsh environment, where temperatures typically exceed 100 degrees Celsius amid volatile chemicals. To help this company, GE supplied its Reuter Stokes Flame Tracker, a tough sensor that relies on sensing ultraviolet wavelengths produced by a flame. The Flame Tracker is certified to temperatures up to 150 degrees Celsius, responds within 25 milliseconds and is crafted out of proven silicon carbide technology to resist chemical corrosion.

After testing the sensor, the ammonia plant operator purchased enough Flame Trackers to equip three of its ammonia facilities. According to GE, the operator now reports improved efficiency, greater reliability and fewer interruptions of service.

As technology becomes more advanced and as conditions get even harsher as miners and oil producers look for commodities farther afield, more tough sensors will be needed. “We are literally putting our lives in the hands of sensors,” says ExcelSense’s Nabavi. “They have to be robust and reliable to handle conditions in Canada.”

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