Connecting the mines

Armstrong Coal in the USA has deployed an MPLS-based IP network from mobile operator AT&T across its six mines, as Kate O’Flaherty reports

Connecting the mines

US mining company Armstrong Coal is responding to the evolving technology landscape with the help of an MPLS-based IP network from mobile operator AT&T, which supports voice and data communications across its six mine sites.

Armstrong, based in western Kentucky, was looking to manage the production, safety and environmental needs of a multi-site coal mining operation. Three of its sites are underground, and the company needed to be ready to respond quickly to the opening of new sites, new regulations and new technologies.

Comms delays
The company was previously funnelling all communications through headquarters, causing delays in communication. But now each site has independent internet access, secured by AT&T network-based firewall, intrusion detection and e-mail filtering services.

With over 1,000 employees and three preparation plants, Armstrong Coal is one of the leading producers of steam coal in the Illinois Basin. The company specialises in providing custom-blended coal to meet the needs of electric power plants throughout the region.

‘When most people think of the coal business, they picture picks and shovels and smokestacks,’ said Nathan Pendergraff, manager of mine systems technology for Armstrong Coal. ‘But as our operations rely on an array of technologies every bit as advanced as you’d see at a Silicon Valley firm.’

Worker safety is a big concern for Armstrong Coal. Therefore, in its underground mines, each worker is outfitted with a special wireless phone that continually tracks their location at all times.

Armstrong also needs to assure maximum uptime for the machinery driving the collection and processing of the coal. This involves constant remote monitoring of all key equipment components.

Important systems are powered by the wireless technology. Armstrong deploys specialised sensors throughout the mine to continually monitor the atmosphere for explosive or noxious gases, and relay the information to mine managers and headquarters automatically. If conditions ever grow dangerous in the mine, workers can be immediately evacuated while the systems continue to document the situation.

Remote systems
The remote systems report on production activity, noting how much coal is being extracted, how much overburden has been removed and how much coal is actually leaving the mine for preparation, Pendergraff says.

‘From here in headquarters, a hundred miles from a mining site, I can see information from nearly a thousand programmable logic controllers,’ says Pendergraff. ‘They can tell me how well one particular motor on one dragline in a mine is performing.

‘I can tell if there’s a conveyor down somewhere, how much fuel a given machine is burning and exactly where it is in the facility. It’s all reported and recorded at all times, which keeps us well ahead of potential failures, maintenance and troubleshooting.’

Armstrong was previously using a simple hub-and-spoke network to connect the mining locations to central management teams at headquarters. But as more locations were added and traffic increased, this architecture proved cumbersome and too vulnerable to failure. As a result, the company worked with AT&T to add more redundancy into the network.

‘Right now, our IP-based network links well over a thousand endpoints across all our locations, including all our control systems plus workstations, routers, servers and our voice communications,’ Pendergraff says. ‘It handles everything from our e-mail to conferencing to our engineers’ CAD transmissions.’

Meanwhile, the AT&T network-based firewall service helps to better secure each location via systems deployed in the network. At the same time, AT&T intrusion detection continuously monitors the MPLS network for signs of attempted intrusion from outside.

The mining company is now implementing a more capable and robust ERP platform to manage areas such as production, human resources, compliance and financial systems. It will also run over the company’s AT&T MPLS network, behind the network-based firewall.

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