Mining communications are becoming smarter. Voice and data systems are advancing rapidly, with deeper analysis allowing firms to be increasingly predictive in their decision making.
Historically, mines have used analogue radio systems. But this is changing, with new technologies such as digital radios and IP phones becoming commonplace.
Meanwhile, the mining market itself is improving. Experts agree that it has been consolidating over the last year and commodity prices are stabilising. As technology improves, mining companies are also becoming more receptive to spending.
It is so-called ‘big data’ analytics that is enabling the mining industry to use meaningful information in the struggle to increase efficiency.
Data is being used to provide equipment status, control, engine management, telemetry, and video and monitoring solutions.
‘Data has always been available, but not in a form that is easy to interpret,’ says Chris Fischer, director of global sales at Mine Site Technologies. ‘Now big data analytics is turning this into meaningful information using the devices on board vehicles.’
Voice systems are also seeing big transformations. Communications between users on different devices has always been complex; telephony devices typically operate on separate networks.
But new technology is bringing services together to a single platform, says Garry Mettner,
Simoco Australasia sales director: ‘Technology is now available that can help bring all these real-time and non-real-time services together onto a single platform, delivering instant communications to PCs and ruggedised devices, and extending the reach of applications into radio,’ he says.
Analogue very-high frequency (VHF) and ultra-high frequency (UHF) private mobile radio systems deployed in mines are being upgraded to newer digital based two-way voice communications services, such as TETRA, DMR and dPMR.
‘The new digital systems offer higher quality crisp clear audio and smart messaging capabilities,’ Mettner says. ‘Digital systems provide better signal quality across a wider footprint coverage area, which maintains more consistent voice communications for the user.’
Communications are different depending on whether they are for an open pit mine or underground. As such, trends vary too. Managing overground radio is ‘easy’, according to Grant Notman, head of sales and marketing at Wood & Douglas. But he adds: ‘When you start going underground you have to be specific; leaky feeders are still used to get radio down tunnels.’
In surface mines, multiple communications networks are required, Fischer says: ‘Those networks merge onto IP ultimately, but now, voice and data is separate.’
However, the shift towards IP networks in underground mining is increasing. According to Fischer: ‘We’ve been talking about it for many years, but it is now accelerating. People are going for this and not using leaky feeders. They look for IP communications – not just for tracking, tagging and telemetry – but also for voice.’
Underground systems are seeing the improvements in safety solutions such as collision avoidance, where low power Wi-Fi technology has been introduced. Heavy machinery utilises tag readers over the Wi-Fi system, which can shut down when detecting close proximity of other vehicles.
Technology for underground mining can be ‘complex and ‘specific’, says Mettner. ‘A key part of underground communication is the distributed antenna network as the frequency gets absorbed by the surrounding environment. Therefore, frequency allocation such as VHF – as opposed to UHF – is a crucial dependency.’
The mining industry is also seeing an increase in on-vehicle devices rather than the use of a central server. This allows them to be used in the mine and decision making can be made locally, Fischer says.
However, he adds: ‘We expect vehicle monitoring and information to be processed locally. There still needs to be a connection to the network – it’s not just dumb devices: they are smart.’
Worker safety continues to be key in the mines. Although staff numbers are declining, security and safety are still key to the industry: this is the biggest application for video in mining. ‘Safety security is a big issue,’ Notman says. ‘It is also useful if someone gets hurt to see whose fault it is. There is a lot of surveillance to make sure people don’t injure themselves.’
Automation is also common through remote monitoring and control capabilities, boosting mine site safety, as well as production rates. Recently, says Fischer, mines have also been utilising infrastructure to make sense of productivity tools, reducing cost per tonne.
But these systems are looking for behavioural change, rather than tracking people individually. ‘It’s about how individuals and groups are outside of safe areas and how to display that without naming names.’
This often results in friendly competition among miners, Fischer says, adding: ‘The communications systems are being used to facilitate business outcomes.’
‘The removal of people as equipment operators in mine sites will inevitably see an increased reliance on communications networks capable of supporting operations via remote control,’ says Mettner.
He adds: ‘While radio technology will undoubtedly still be a major hub of mine communication systems, the actual number of terminals on site will dramatically reduce as staff levels decline in favour of more automated data driven applications.’
Meanwhile, network security in mines is ‘enterprise grade’, says Fischer. ‘It is no less secure than an enterprise grade Wi-Fi network: protocols and authentication of users is necessary. These mining networks are as susceptible to hacking as enterprise systems, so they must be protected.’
Mining the sea
Mining companies are monitoring the sea bed using analogue radios. ‘We transmit the data back and forwards across the ocean,’ says Wood & Douglas’ Notman, adding: ‘They are using analogue radio for the statistics: they ping the bottom of the surface and map the sea bed. This lets them find out where the various minerals are.’
Notman cites the example of a large diamond mine in Africa, which uses wireless communications to prevent thieving. It is a dedicated mining town and is segregated off from the rest of the country, with miners living there.
‘Most of the thieves are workers who they employ: diamonds are small so can be secreted around the person, so the high quality monitoring we give them is helpful,’ he says.
Notman explains: ‘They secure the perimeters and have mobile surveillance and analogue technology linked to digital range. We do the support in the UK for the offshore and onshore systems – we support them remotely from here.’
But the radios in the sea ‘physically fall to pieces’ in three years, says Notman. ‘The salt gets into it and eats into the chassis.’