Like many other industries, mining operations around the globe are now turning to wireless technology in a bid to boost operating efficiency, reduce costs and improve upon safety.
And why wouldn’t they? Mining isn’t an industry where things are done by halves. Most operations are done on a massive scale and those involved frequently have to work in the trickiest of situations, often fraught with danger. Mining is also a mature global business touching many points across almost every continent, and one where downtime costs firms millions of dollars.
As Rob Bamforth, an analyst at Quocirca, notes: ‘There are many opportunities for the technology within mining as it is a large-scale industry with a harsh working environment that is dispersed over large areas. There are significant safety issues that wireless can help with, providing it can be reliably delivered. There is also expensive equipment that needs to be tracked, not only because of value but also precise knowledge of location can be difficult, especially underground.’
Of course, the introduction of wireless technology brings benefits, not least the reduction in cables and new sense of space and mobility it affords for users. Underground, such metrics make a huge difference to those working at the coalface.
And now, thanks to technology such as Wi-Fi, mesh wireless networking and greatly evolved battery technologies at greatly reduced cost, mining operations are turning their focus to the technology in a bid to provide real-time practical solutions to the challenges they face.
As Tommy Andersson, key account manager at Swedish Radio Supply AB explains, today’s mining industry is using both voice and data communication in the field to deliver efficiencies.
‘Voice is mainly for safety and production operations,’ he says, ‘while data communication is used for transmitting information such as drilling data etc. The trend is that bigger units are moving from analogue to digital voice communication and TETRA is a common technology used for its built-in safety, high capacity, talk groups, good coverage, noise cancelling, rugged terminals and lastly its reliability.’
Andersson also says there are firms who use WLAN networks for data communication, while some are looking to use them for voice too. ‘Good coverage is critical and is needed both above and underground, from robust and reliable equipment that can withstand a harsh environment full of dust and moisture and where noise can be quite high,’ he adds.
Mining as an industry also requires a multitude of solutions for different scenarios, such as including equipment suitable for harsh environments and low-power consumption for solar powered solutions, as Bettina Leth Johannsen, marketing manager at DAMM Cellular Systems, points out.
‘Compact and mobile systems are important, as mining sites and requirements can change very dynamically,’ she says. ‘This flexibility also requires simplicity of deployment, which means minimising any training needs.’
Johannsen points out that as mining operations often take place in very remote locations, communications in relation to safety and emergency issues are of critical importance. This requires equipment capable of producing ‘man-down’ alerts that put out calls to emergency units and services.
‘Obviously increased efficiency plays [an] important role in mining too, with TETRA platforms used for SCADA and telemetry solutions, data and security alarms, geo-fencing and so on,’ she adds.
Johannsen says that when you add to this the remote areas and changes in environment as an exploration moves forward, the importance of integrating things like GIS maps for dispatcher solutions becomes clear.
‘The remote locations makes the dependency on failsafe and redundant communication systems extremely important,’ she says.
John Erik Kostenniemi, chief of IT Infrastructure at LKAB, a Swedish mining company, says that wireless makes business sense because of the general dynamic and changing face of the mining operation and its faster implementation times.
At one of the firm’s sites in Sweden, the world’s largest, most modern underground iron ore mine, Kostenniemi says the company is using wireless for connectivity: ‘The LKAB mine in Kiruna uses 802.11 Wi-Fi communication, which is being extended continuously with the goal of reaching full coverage this year.’
Meshing technology is also radically changing the face of mining, with deployed networks enabling real-time communications that allow for the monitoring of the myriad moving objects that make up the day to day mining operation such as haulage trucks, drilling equipment and of course, the miners themselves.
Fleet management and monitoring above and below ground for things like dispatch is just as important to the overall operation as communicating with the miners.
This type of network also allows for the scalable high bandwidth scenario required by many mining operations and can be delivered at affordable prices today by a plethora of vendors. With nodes also functioning as routers in this kind of operation, wireless devices are able to assist each other in the movement of packets over the network, something that can be beneficial in the adverse conditions of open-pit and underground mining, which suffer from signal degradation.
‘In addition to the harsh physical conditions that will easily damage sensitive hardware, this environment can absorb, reflect and cause errors in wireless signals,’ confirms Bamforth.
In a mesh scenario, users are able to simply add in extra nodes to build in redundancy and performance for mining operations, with the added protection coming from the networks’ ability to simply route information along different paths, thereby circumnavigating any network problems should a node go down.
The beauty of the mesh also lies in its ability to serve out a number of end points, unlike point-to-point networks. And all this at a relatively low point of entry compared to the wired networks of yesteryear.
Indeed, in a short space of time the mining industry has come a very long way to truly harnessing the benefits that wireless delivery can bring, with the convergence of these technologies having already brought new efficiencies and improved time to market at a fraction of cost – while saving lives too.