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THE DRIFT 2019: Maestro Digital Mine – enabling digital mining through connectivity

Maestro Digital Mine in Sudbury uses technology to monitor and control the quality of underground air.
Co-owners Michael Gribbons (seated, left) and David Ballantyne (seated, right), with the Maestro Digital Mine team, celebrate another international mining company order of the Plexus PowerNet. (Supplied photo)

One question has been at the backbone of David Ballantyne and Michael Gribbons' partnership at Maestro Digital Mine: how to make the working conditions of underground mines safer while at the same time increasing productivity.

Maestro specializes in using technology to monitor and control the quality of the air to the mine workings.

Ballantyne and Gribbons have a longstanding working relationship going back about 25 years. Ballantyne, a former INCO worker, started off as Gribbons’ client at Synergy Controls Corporation, and their friendship grew as their families got to know each other.

But it was while Ballantyne was working on an Ethernet-based digital airflow meter through his business Emfinity that the two started working together.

“He explained it plugs into a network switch...and it works like a VoIP (voice-over-internet-protocol) telephone, reducing a ton of supporting hardware and unnecessary costs. That got my interest,” Gribbons explained. “He realized that industrial sensors and controls could be applied in a similar way.”

Gribbons and Ballantyne decided to market the product together, through Synergy’s distribution team. Initial reactions were good; clients liked the airflow meter, but they wanted a complete solution for air quality monitoring for underground mines.

Shortly after, Maestro was formed.

The company’s flagship product was the Vigilante AQS, a complete air quality monitoring system that accurately measures airflow rate, direction, wet and dry bulb temperature, gas concentration and dust particulate, enabling miners to return to the face sooner and safer.

The product is compact, easy to install, and easy to train people to use. Best of all, the system is 50 to 70 per cent less expensive alternate conventional options.

An updated version includes digital gas sensors that compensate for pressure and temperature changes, along with a complete suite of diagnostics to help determine the health of the system. It allows workers to make diagnoses from surface, eliminating multiple trips to maintain the equipment.

“We named it the Vigilante because it looks out for the miner's health, while others may be oblivious to real-time environmental conditions,” said Gribbons, Maestro’s vice-president of marketing and sales.

The cause is a personal one for Ballantyne and Gribbons, both of whom come from a long line of hard-rock Sudbury Basin miners.

Ballantyne’s great-grandfather died underground from asphyxiation, while his father died from lung cancer. Gribbons’ grandfather died of lung cancer, and his father almost died at 45 years old from lung surgery.

“Our families benefited from mining, but we also suffered from it,” Gribbons said.

Since the early days, Maestro has evolved to become a technology company, finding ways to harness and use data in relation to systems, sensors and processes.

When clients asked for a way to get data directly to the mine face, Maestro responded with the Plexus PowerNet, a communications system using a coaxial cable to transmit both data and power to wireless access points, cameras or other IP-based devices.

It can be used in any automation applications, including autonomous mobile equipment, tracking and tagging, powerline communications, ventilation monitoring and control, voice or video.

The system can be installed and maintained by any internal tradesperson and even be advanced by a development miner.

Gribbons said participating in national networks, such as the Ultra-Deep Mining Network, helped Maestro accelerate the Vigilante AQS quickly to national and international levels.

To date, Maestro’s products have been installed in more than 110 mines around the world.

In an effort to give back to the industry, Gribbons actively participates in the community, sitting on the board for the Sudbury Area Mining Supply and Service Association (SAMSSA) and the Mining Innovation Rehabilitation and Applied Research Corporation (MIRARCO).

Previously, he was a board director with the Mining Suppliers Trade Association (formerly CAMESE) and the Sudbury Chamber of Commerce.

Additionally, Maestro continues to support Dynamic Earth, SNOLAB, NORCAT and Sandford Laboratories with equipment to assist with their internal mine research and demonstration projects.

The Drift magazine, a new publication from Northern Ontario Business, features profiles on the people and companies making important contributions to the Northern Ontario mining service and supply industry.