Falling asleep at work is never a good thing.

Nodding off at the wheel of a 200-ton mining truck is downright dangerous.

With that in mind, a Tucson-based company is carving a niche for itself in the growing mining technology sector.

Guardvant Inc. makes sophisticated systems to improve the safety of mining operations, including a product that monitors worker fatigue and alertness, and proximity-awareness systems.

Last week, the three-year-old company announced a major order from Chilean copper mining giant Codelco for its OpGuard fatigue-alert system and its ProxGuard proximity-awareness system.

Codelco (Corporación Nacional del Cobre de Chile) plans to install more than 500 of Guardvant's systems at two of its mines in Chile.

"They had some trial systems for awhile, so this is them making the decision to go forward. It's pretty significant, and we're pretty excited about it," said Erich Smidt, director of sales and marketing for Guardvant.

The systems add to previous installations in Africa, South America, North America and Australia, by mining companies including South African gold miner Gold Fields Ltd., diamond miner DeBeers, Anglo American Plc and BHP Billiton.

The company's OpGuard monitoring system uses infrared cameras and illumination, along with facial-recognition and video-processing technology, to track and evaluate an operator's eye and facial movements.

"We are able to look at aspects like the percent of eye closure. We look for signs of possibly building up to overfatigue. We also look at the pitch and yaw of the face, for distraction events," Smidt said.

How often people blink and how long they keep their eyes closed can tell a lot about their fatigue level, Smidt said. That includes spotting so-called incidences of "microsleep" - a sort of involuntary catnap lasting perhaps a couple of seconds.

The OpGuard system can be set up to set off an alarm when a person is detected nodding off, and the video can be replayed for an accident investigation, for example.

Such constant surveillance might make civil libertarians squirm.

But the cameras are not monitored constantly, Smidt said, noting that the company works with customers on "face-saving" ways to address on-the-job napping with employees.

Such technology is important in an industry where 12-hour shifts are common, Smidt noted.

A few other companies market fatigue-monitoring systems, including Australia-based Seeing Machines, which also uses facial-recognition technology and has an office in Tucson.

A United Kingdom company uses software that predicts fatigue based on data inputs like hours worked and vehicle steering, while another Australian company has a system that measures a person's brain waves with a special cap.

Besides OpGuard - Guardvant's biggest seller - Guardvant also markets its ProxGuard proximity monitoring system, which combines radar, video cameras and GPS satellite navigation to eliminate driver blind spots and pinpoint approaching hazards. A third product, SecurityGuard, is a security-camera and alert system tailored to mining operations.

A mining expert said he isn't surprised that Codelco decided to install Guardvant's high-tech fatigue system.

"I worked in Chile, and it's my impression they want to be at the forefront of technology," said George Leaming, a local mining industry economist.

In fact, Codelco has been using remote-control mining trucks at one mine in Chile since 2008.

Leaming said it's part of a movement by mine operators to automate operations, but it hasn't always worked out.

"There's been a number of companies who have been trying to automate or robotize the mining industry - some with success, some not so successful," Leaming said.

Guardvant is just one of several mining-technology companies that call Tucson home.

In fact, the company's founders include several former employees of Tucson-based Modular Mining Systems, which makes sophisticated mining dispatch and fleet-management systems.

Other local mining technology companies include Mintec Inc., which makes modeling and mine planning software; and Zonge International, which makes sensing equipment for geophysical research.

Guardvant founder Sergio Blacutt left Modular and formed a new company, Jigsaw Technologies, a maker of mining fleet-management systems that was acquired by Leica Geosystems in 2007.

Guardvant employs 14 people at its Tucson headquarters, and has two sales and service offices in Africa and one in South America.

The company performs final assembly and testing of its systems in Tucson, using local vendors including Yarbrough Electronics Sales for circuit boards, Smidt said.

Smidt said most of Guardvant's sales so far have been overseas, but that could change.

"We've really been focusing overseas, and now we're starting to really focus here in North America as well," he said.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.