Using Industrial Wireless Technology In Mines

Louise Smyth

As pressure builds on miners to achieve new levels of performance, the digital mine is continuing to grow at an exponential rate. In an industry where even short periods of operational downtime can cause millions of dollars in losses, mining operators must be empowered to continuously monitor, manage and control their large fleets of high-value equipment, vehicles and personnel across large areas of mining terrain.

Communication technology is emerging as a solution to this need, ensuring hazardous areas such as underground mines can be made safer and operational efficiency can be increased. This has the potential to pave a new way of working for miners, but none of this is possible without reliable, mission-critical connectivity.

Which Solution Is Right For Mines?

With fibre being an insufficient option, miners demand a network that can ensure that their applications, equipment and mine production can efficiently and effectively keep running, both on the surface and underground.

Due to their harsh climatic and operational nature, underground mines are some of the most challenging places to deploy technology in the world. Typically, mines lack the infrastructure to deploy wired connectivity and often maintain very limited, if any power sources – which is further enhanced by a lack of Ethernet, which limits the possibility of wireless connectivity.

Many mines depend on leaky feeder and/or fibre to achieve reliable underground communications, but installing fibre in active drives, panels and declines can often be difficult to schedule and can create operational and maintenance nightmares. Additionally, development, drill and blast areas can rarely support any wired infrastructure. As a result, it is not uncommon for trucks to accidentally catch and rip down sections of the cabled infrastructure, resulting in complete connectivity loss across the entire underground mine.

As well as the connectivity and throughput demands, circular ramps and declines, stopes and mine layouts also place limitations on how far wireless signals can travel. In vast and hazardous environments such as mines, it’s vital that the network is able to reach every corner of the mine and be able to adapt with miners’ movements to provide constant, uninterrupted communications between miners and their support teams to ensure the fast and timely responses that are vital in emergencies.

Introducing Autonomy Into Mines

To keep up with demands, underground mines are also looking to leverage autonomy to meet increasingly stringent safety and productivity mandates. Autonomous applications are not only bandwidth-intensive but most require continuous, uninterrupted communication; otherwise, the autonomous vehicle has to stop due to safety reasons until communications are re-established. As mining assets are often part of a mine’s communications network, this means that they can also add to interference issues, further feeding into this issue.

In harsh, remote and dangerous conditions such as mines, high mean-time between failures is also crucial for operations. Therefore, technology must be built to be robust and future-proof to avoid the need for frequent and expensive technician visits. This is especially the case for networks operating 24/7/365, where replacing network equipment would mean having to suspend operations, which would result in further costly undertaking.

As pressure increases on miners to move more material at a lower cost per ton, operators also need to be able to add more equipment efficiently and cost-effectively, without downtime.

New Possibilities Due To the IIoT

As the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) continues to explode, new possibilities are opening up for miners to track virtually any aspect of a machine’s operations. As a result of this, equipment fleets can now be equipped with wireless technology and sensors to stream real-time data on their health and performance back to the command centre. This includes everything from a machine’s current location to its current tyre pressure, enabling operators to gain full visibility into the health status and performance of every asset, as well as be armed with the insights needed to keep fleets fully optimised.

This has also opened the door to monitoring production of underground mining ventilation on demand (VOD) systems, which enables a series of sensors to be distributed throughout a mine to send real-time information regarding air quality, personnel and vehicle use to a central computer with specialised software.

As the mining industry looks to embrace advancements in technology, personnel and asset tracking are also both emerging as a way to make mines safer to protect personnel and increase operational efficiencies.

Sagar Chandra is with Rajant

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