The mining industry is transforming as voice communications are replaced with data in a market where efficiency and safety are integral to operations.
While a combination of new technologies is emerging in the mines, many companies are unwilling to invest until they can see a viable return. However, in the last five years, the requirement for data for applications such as video has increased, according to Jason Stout, vice president of Europe, Middle East and Africa at Mine Radio Systems.
A big driver of technology in mines is the supporting infrastructure to allow more automation to be introduced, according to Denis Kent, business development manager at Mine SiteTechnologies. ‘The quality and quantity of data has dictated our push into IP-based communication networks over the last eight years,’ he says.
Stout agrees, saying: ‘The main driver is backbone – this means a leaky feeder cable or fibre – and we can add Wi-Fi to this.’
He adds: ‘The comms market is driven by new technology. It used to be voice, but now it’s ICT with voice on the side – voice is something we give on top. Many of our competitors are using black boxes but surely the goal is to have an integrated system?’
Kent is seeing customers ask for high quality, high bandwidth networks to support multiple applications in modern mining. ‘Without a good communication backbone, automation would not be achievable,’ he concurs.
As a reliable mining staple, the leaky feeder cable provides dependable voice, but the amount of data that can be used is very small. But now leaky feeder cables are part of the mining communications revolution, with newer versions becoming high-speed themselves, capable of hosting 60Mb of data.
Wi-Fi is often deployed in mines, but some feel the technology is not dependable. ‘The jury’s out,’ says Stout. ‘We are often taking out Wi-Fi systems as they aren’t reliable enough, although the technology is good in tunnels.’
But Wi-Fi is growing in use underground, Kent says, and its use has expanded over the last
10 to 15 years in the general surface industry and public communications, as it provides high bandwidth and allows a number of communication networks to be converged onto a single backbone: the IP network.
‘In the surface, the use of IP networks and Wi-Fi in particular has given much higher bandwidth and signal quality,’ Kent says, adding: ‘We have seen the main use in areas where signal quality is paramount, typically in providing the communication network for fleet management systems installed on all trucks and loaders to optimise their utilisation. Real-time, accurate data from these systems is an important aspect of getting the most out of them.’
Mark Wood, director, sales and marketing at GMG Solutions, says his company uses Wi-Fi for vehicle monitoring, SCADA/ telemetry, mine site broadband and remote cameras. He believes TETRA could replace Wi-Fi for SCADA/telemetry and vehicle monitoring.
‘Mines are looking to automate sites for both efficiencies and safety,’ he says. ‘This means a technology or multiple technologies that can be managed by a single network backbone, allowing management the ability to control from a single source.
‘Mining companies request secure digital voice and data: mine sites are critical operations,’ he adds.
With this change in technology comes a change in IT requirements. Stout says his company is positioning itself as a systems integrator, using a mixture of technology. ‘It’s an ICT requirement. Telcos did this 15 years ago and we are now doing this in the mines. Look at overall requirements – all app backhaul in one place and instead of using eight different suppliers, you have just one.’
Stout says the person he sells to is different now, too. ‘You used to sit down with the mine manager – he was 50 years old, an ex-miner with a radio frequency background. Now I’m speaking to a 25-year old IT person who wants to talk data – young, enthusiastic and well-educated.
He wants to know how much data he can get; it’s completely different.’
As part of this changing IT requirement, accurate tracking improves both safety and efficiency; the latest technology allows objects and people underground to be identified within 0.3m, compared with 5m previously. With this in mind, Mine Radio Systems is currently looking at technology using an integrated system with GPS on top for above ground.
Stout says: ‘In the past you wanted to know about a person in a certain area, but now instead of locating a person in a zone, we can position anything in a mine to a third of a metre. If I know where a person or asset is, I can be incredibly efficient. A lot of the systems are based on tracking but this is proximity detection and avoidance.’
Tracking on the surface is commonly done using GPS-type systems, Kent adds, with many devices incorporating a GPS. He says: ‘It is vehicles that are tracked, rather than people in open pit mines.’
Often the GPS system is enhanced using active RFID tags to provide additional location information when in satellite shadow zones – in deep open pits – or where vehicles pass through areas of high metal content in surface structures.
Kent says: ‘Obviously GPS is not an option for underground and hence the use of active
RFID tags is the most common method to track vehicles and people. The tracking of personnel is important underground due to the nature of the underground environment and the safety benefits of knowing where people are at all times.’
Initially, Mine Site Technologies developed a dedicated tracking system where the tag readers read the tags and logged people moving past, but as its Wi-Fi based systems and networks developed, the company switched to Wi-Fi RFID tags.
Integrated systems are becoming more commonplace in 2013, says Stout, but in his view attitudes need to change. ‘What mining companies are saying now is, you own the problem – the IT guy understands. It’s that simple it’s embarrassing, but the mining market doesn’t always get it.’
Kent says that the market ‘is growing’ and sees trends including the introduction of more remote control and automation technologies. He adds: ‘Mining has always lagged behind general surface industry in the adoption of technologies, but now remote monitoring and control and automation are becoming more widespread, the requirement for high bandwidth, high quality communication networks has grown.’
The evolution of mining industry has certainly begun, but it still has a long way to go before catching up with other industries. While many are embracing the benefits offered by IT, many still want proof of significant savings before they will invest.