Today, mining operators experience increasing pressure to process material at a lower cost per ton and remain profitable in an ever-competitive landscape, while tackling the harshest environments. With the top forty mining companies worldwide having a combined revenue of approximately 683 billion US dollars, this trend for efficiencies shows no sign of slowing down.
Underground mines and tunnels are some of the most challenging environments in which to deploy wireless network systems. Connectivity and throughput demands are high, but spiralling designs, slopes, and mine depth place limitations on how far wireless signals can travel.
With ubiquitous fibre being an impractical and expensive option, mining operators require a network that can ensure applications, equipment, and mine production can efficiently and effectively keep running - both on the surface and underground. Technology in the underground mining industry is progressing at an exponential rate, bringing improved productivity, cost savings, and employee safety. Mining operators must utilise these technologies to fully realise the immense benefits they offer.
Deploying digital technologies
Data-driven mining is the most efficient means of meeting modern mining demands, with the industry firmly focused on digital technologies that will enable them to reach the goals that are becoming essential to the future of mines. Whilst underground mining technology advances at an impressive rate, challenges such as unfailing connectivity and personnel safety remain crucial to the industry’s operations and efficiency. Operators are required to manage and monitor high quantities of vital high-value machinery and equipment over large areas – a task which demands reliable solutions.
Furthermore, mining has a high level of employee risk, with roles that involve incredibly hazardous locations and machinery. The industry is obliged to mitigate this risk as much as possible, and mining companies are regularly searching for approaches to personnel safety, which can reduce unnecessary danger and keep employees out of harm’s way.
Traditional wireless networks run via fixed infrastructure, such as Point-to-Multi-Point (PMP) and Wi-Fi, meaning they cannot be easily relocated. This creates a problem for the mining environment, which is ever-changing, with the shape, depth, and configuration altering as extraction takes place. As a result, any technological solutions deployed in mines must be robust and able to function in extreme conditions, as well as easily transported and relocated away from new blast zones.
Operators need mission-critical connectivity
The challenges faced by mine operators can be increased by the selection of wireless technology that struggles to consistently function in these types of scenarios and manage data-driven operations. If the network fails, even temporarily, the impact can be costly, as the mine cannot process real-time applications that are crucial to ensuring constant productivity or supervise valuable assets. Expenses can also arise from regular technician visits if networks are not robust enough to withstand harsh conditions. Mines will struggle to meet production targets and cannot maintain efficiency if a network has too much downtime or cannot support the critical applications.
Most importantly, mining organisations require unbroken monitoring of mines so they can be continually aware of employees’ locations and status, mainly when operating hazardous equipment or working in dangerous areas – only then can their safety be maximised. Productivity and employee safety work together through workers’ ability to focus solely on the task at hand, knowing safety officials are watching out for their wellbeing. Tracking equipment allows support staff to recognise any potential hazards or malfunctions with assets, and therefore pre-empt situations to avoid employees encountering any risks.
To ensure that data-driven mining is the successful solution to these challenges, mines require wireless networks with the most dependable, mission-critical connectivity. Ensuring safety and productivity is only possible with an unfailing network connection that is continuously effective and can support 24/7 activity. This means networks must have a high level of resilience and robustness that can adapt to a diverse array of topographies, particularly in remote areas, without any downtime.
A wireless network that can remain connected in all corners of vast mines is key to the continuous connection between people working underground and their support teams, so that there can be instant communication in emergencies. Tracking systems, used to monitor employees, need to be user-friendly and practical, particularly considering the adverse conditions within which they are often operating. To serve their crucial purpose, devices cannot be heavy or large and must have a battery life that can last the entirety of a job. In times of need, it is particularly useful if tracking devices support cameras with automated or teleoperation solutions to stream live footage of the situation and therefore receive the most appropriate response.
Another requirement of the industry is the need for highly mobile connectivity. Extending or repairing fibre networks requires time, effort and expense to relocate. With legacy Wi-Fi and LTE solutions, once they have been moved to a new location, it can also take hours of configuration to reconfigure. In large complex mining areas, this is unproductive and less than ideal, particularly as relocation can lead to downtime. The optimum wireless network has to be mobile itself and support full user mobility, whilst still providing continuous connection, saving time, and increasing productivity and safety. Data-driven mines enjoy increased productivity and personnel safety, whilst gaining cost-saving benefits simultaneously. A network which can manage all data reliably and efficiently will assist operators in achieving the most from their workers and assets, relieving some of the pressure from the users, and realising the full benefits of being a digitalised mine.
Rajant has responded to these demands with specific solutions that target the requirements of the underground mining industry. Rajant’s private, wireless Kinetic Mesh® is an adaptable, autonomous network that is readily scalable to hundreds of high-bandwidth nodes. It was built specifically to suit the characteristics of the mining industry – which means highly mobile connections in industrial environments. The network is both future-proof and straightforward, while easily adapting to mines with changing terrain and landscapes. Through its robustness and mobility, Kinetic Mesh can provide unwavering connection in the adverse and changing conditions typical of the underground mining industry, and therefore deliver reliable communication.
Rajant’s BreadCrumb® nodes work via multiple peer connections and can be fixed or mobile. For example, a connection can be made between moving assets, such as trucks, enabling vehicle-to-vehicle communications between mobile equipment. The compact nodes can be easily relocated and instantly connected with nearby nodes. They can hold multiple connections over multiple frequencies at the same time, creating hundreds of paths over which traffic can be directed.
This is made possible through Rajant InstaMesh® networking protocol, which dynamically and automatically selects the fastest route for traffic, and re-routes communications to the next best path if the first becomes blocked or unavailable. Downtime is avoided to ensure underground mining’s subterranean conditions will not compromise network performance.
Autonomy and mobility are key
Autonomy in mining is beneficial in both productivity and personnel safety. By deploying automatic equipment for drilling and haulage, mines can achieve production gains without the presence of an operator. Equally, this contributes to avoiding worker fatigue, which can, in turn, create safety risks. The use of autonomous assets in the riskiest parts of the mine can reduce the number of people working in dangerous areas by more than 50%, significantly contributing to personnel safety.
Kinetic Mesh wireless connectivity is not restrained by fibre links, which are difficult and time-consuming to move, but is instead highly mobile and, therefore, incredibly efficient. A connection is not compromised by the task of moving ta backhaul network around in adverse conditions or away from blasts, allowing personnel and equipment to continue production whatever the operational environment may be. Due to InstaMesh, if any connections are broken through equipment movement, connections are automatically optimised and redirected over another available path.
Workers’ exposure to unnecessary risk is increased when communications fail, or technology cannot support the data required to monitor and track personnel. Rajant’s resilient and adaptable network enables workers to be connected continuously. Rajant’s tracking devices are practical and straightforward, meaning real-time communication with miners is always possible. The ability to share video and image means emergencies and hazards can be immediately shared with support staff above ground, with an accurate depiction of the situation, allowing for a fast and appropriate response. This asset monitoring also translates to the upkeep and safety of machinery, which can be located and assessed at any time, and therefore anticipate maintenance before failure or downtime.
With automated drilling and shovelling in mines coming into use alongside existing autonomous equipment, Rajant has created a network that can support advancements in the use of data for underground mining. Kinetic Mesh embodies the climate of mining, and therefore works effectively and responds to its requirements. It can keep up with the exponential progression in mining technology, with a forward-thinking approach.
Future of mining
Mines having both production pressures and the absolute need for increased employee safety will benefit by a network that is continuously connected no matter the situation. Safety, productivity, and cost savings are all heightened due to the digitalisation of mining. Confidence can be had by deploying a redundant and wireless mesh network to support the future of mining. Mines will reap the full benefits of their assets and their workforce by utilising a network that can support all technologies, empowering them to enhance miner safety, increase productivity, reduce costs, and prepare the industry for the future.
Chris Mason is with Rajant Corporation