Iktinos Hellas – Volakas Drama: Innovation 25 meters below the ground surface

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At the Volakas marble quarry in Drama, a “hive” of people and machinery is in constant motion 25 metres below the surface. Around 80 workers and numerous machines are busy extracting the coveted white dolomitic marble, predominantly exported to China, from the 30,000 square metre site. Inside the Volakas quarry, conditions are challenging, and communication is not always easy as the WiFi signal is often “blocked” by the depth of the quarry, the iron machinery, and the reflections inside.

Over the past two years, according to APE-MPA, extraordinary “visitors” have frequented the quarry alongside its regular employees. Installing sensors, interacting with workers via mobile screens and working on cutting-edge technologies, these specialist engineers come from the Geodesy Laboratory of the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA).

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Iktinos Vice President and Deputy CEO Julie Chaida

Together with the quarry owner, IKTINOS HELLAS SA, they are developing “INSPIRER” – an integrated system for monitoring surface and underground operations. This advanced system incorporates geolocation, Internet of Things (IoT) and business intelligence (BI) technologies, bringing the latest innovations to the heart of a quarry with decades of history.

In 2021, Vassilis Gikas, a topography professor at the NTUA, ventured into the quarry’s underground section and marvelled at its grandeur, comparing it to an enormous jewel. However, he soon recognised the challenges faced by the research team in their ambitious project. Implementing “Industry 4.0” technologies underground proved a significant hurdle due to water, mud, dust, obstacles, numerous simultaneous processes, and WiFi disruptions.

However, the remarkable collaboration with the company and the team’s unwavering determination has already borne fruit, resulting in the development of essential hardware and software at the initial prototype stage. According to Gikas, INSPIRER’s primary focus is to pilot a marble quarry monitoring system, emphasising design, development, and quality control. The system aims to increase the safety of personnel and equipment while improving exploitation efficiency and reducing the environmental impact.

IoT technologies collect the data and then transmit it to a pre-configured business intelligence platform. The Artificial Intelligence (AI) implementation transforms this data into valuable insights that can be delivered to an application on employees’ mobile devices, enabling them to respond accordingly. The system will also allow data to be extracted and visualised in a database, using AI algorithms to identify key performance indicators (KPIs).

What does all this mean in practice? Gikas explains: “For example, when the system is fully deployed, a foreman at the back of the quarry will be able to know that at a certain time at the front “3” wire cutting is taking place with that particular machine, running at that particular power. He will also know what reports ‘x’ worker has submitted and if there is any unusual micromovement in the quarry”. He adds that the combination of all the technologies developed and installed by NTUA scientists will allow the reduction of “dead time” (the periods during which workers or machines are idle), thereby, increasing production and reducing the possibility of accidents. With comprehensive information on the quarry’s activities, the system will reduce the environmental impact through more rational fuel and electricity use.

Mr Gikas points out that “only the platform and the basic tools for monitoring the main quarry operations have been built for the project. Critical issues, such as specialised operations and omnidirectional detection assurance, remain a challenge and are the next step in such a difficult environment”. However, these technologies are designed to be scalable, given the dynamic nature of quarry spaces. Previously, information transfer was largely manual, with document exchanges once a day. Now it can be done digitally and in real-time.

INSPIRER is the only system in Greece tailored to the marble industry, demonstrating the essential collaboration between Greek companies and universities. “We are the only company that has it because NTUA built it for us. The cooperation with the NTUA people, which has been going on for two years now, is excellent,” Iktinos Vice President and Deputy CEO Julie Chaida tells APE-MPA.

She also points out that the NSRF 2021-2027 of the Eastern Macedonia-Thrace region funded the creation of the platform. This funding is part of the innovation, research, and development investment projects in line with the Smart Specialisation Strategy. The INSPIRER proposal, submitted in 2020, received the highest score among numerous co-proposals. It faced initial challenges due to pandemic-related difficulties in the supply of machines, components, and sensors. However, the project later progressed smoothly.

“We firmly believe that the implementation of an automated system is of paramount importance, especially in a quarry like Volakas, where underground mining produces 70,000 tonnes per year, the majority of which (80-90%) is exported to China. Initially, sensors were installed in 15-20 machines to gradually equip all the machines, ensure real-time monitoring of each machine’s location, operating status, and fuel consumption, and trigger immediate mobile alerts if any problems arise,” she concludes.