Mining communications for mine automation

Mines automation makes a great deal of sense from almost any perspective: productivity, profitability, skills, safety and environmental. Mining is a dangerous, dirty job. The costs and risks are huge. The ability to gain centralised control not only of equipment and machinery but integrated operational and business data offers enormous benefits to the mine operator. It also places a much greater emphasis on the quality, reliability and security of your remote communications infrastructure. Bernie Branfield, General Manager of Datasat Communications, examines the issues.

Monday 10th March 14

Mine automation is hardly a new concept. Since the inception of the industry, miners have been looking at better ways to do things. For years, mine sites have used satellite or radio communication for areas such as remote asset management, fleet communication or water monitoring. Low data Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) style applications have enhanced mine operations by enabling mine companies to collect information from remote sites and use a satellite connection to cost-effectively communicate with regional plants or a central headquarters.

There is no doubt that this type of monitoring and alerting system improves site performance, reduce maintenance costs, increase productivity and provide essential data for business analytics and planning. These systems continue to play an important role within an overall mine automation strategy. However, the remote mine automation that is rapidly becoming a reality today has moved on a long way. Sometimes it begins to feel like we have moved into the realms of science fiction.

Caterpillar's Automated Haul Trucks are loaded with artificial intelligence developed for DARPA (The US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency). The technology was designed for an autonomous vehicle to navigate its way through an urban environment where there are a good number of potential obstructions. This is augmented by GPS systems to monitor position and direction as well as laser range finders to avoid large objects.

Similar technologies underpin the fleet of 150 Komatsu trucks that Rio Tinto is using at its Mine of the Future? installation in Australia. The driver-less trucks travel a pre-defined route and are controlled centrally from a control centre 1,500Km from the site. The challenge, of course, is not just to organise a single truck along its route but to co-ordinate a fleet of trucks travelling back and forth and frequently passing each other.

An alternative to Automated Haul Trucks is the type of automated conveyor belt being implement by Vale at its Carajás Serra Sul iron mine. When completed, there will be over 37Km of conveyor belts running continuously across the site. But, these are space age conveyor belts that move with the seam. They contain motors that allow the belts to crawl as operations dictate. GPS systems ensure that the precise location is established.

Even where a good deal of the variables are pre-determined, there is a requirement for continuous monitoring, management and control. That is true as more and more of the mining process becomes a candidate for increased levels of automation. Today, there are driver-less trains and operator-less drilling rigs. An automated truck may load, use numerous weigh stations, pass through access control points and unload at plant or port with almost zero human intervention. All the time its fuel consumption, tyre pressure and parts are being monitored to ensure optimum efficiency.

The advances in wireless technologies means that many companies are now looking at ways to gain deeper and richer data from these automation systems. Wireless sensors, material and personnel tracking, asset monitoring and data acquisition are all becoming much more common over a wireless network infrastructure.  And, the pace of change is moving very fast. CCTV cameras and surveillance systems were originally the province of personnel and asset protection. Today, image and video systems are enabling powerful video analytics in automation tools such as process controllers, supervision systems and planning systems.

Wireless enables the type of rich, bandwidth-hungry applications – both operational and business – that remote sites would have severely struggled to deliver previously. A new generation of wireless solutions are changing what can be achieved underground and replacing a good deal of the fibre cabling that would previously been required.

Beyond the benefits of mine automation, one aspect is clear. Automation requires data. Not just the simple SCADA style of monitoring and control data but the rich, multimedia data that allows real-time video to become part of an Automated Haul Truck's management systems. That data has to be available continuously to the control centre – whether that's on-site or increasingly a centralised control centre whose staff are managing hundreds of mine sites globally. That data will include not only the information to control the automation of process and assets but also essential operational data to help with exploration, exploitation and business planning. It has to be secure and delivered in a way that allows for effective data exchange and orchestration.

That requires a fresh perspective on remote communications. Not so very long ago, remote communications was concerned with delivering connectivity to areas where terrestrial infrastructure was absent or simply not a viable option. A communications service provider would establish a basic network for voice and data traffic. More often than not, it would be a satellite infrastructure to ensure security and availability of service.

Providing basic voice and data services will always be a strong component of a remote communications infrastructure but for the full benefit of mine automation to be achieved it has to evolve. No single technology can provide the communications infrastructure for a remote mine site. The mix of satellite, wireless, cellular and radio technologies deployed will be determined by the operational and business applications running at the site, the range of supporting services such as miner welfare, and the degree of mine automation that has to be achieved.

The challenge is to minimise that amount of network infrastructure that any mine site has in place. As new mine automation systems emerge and are adopted, there is a possibility that a different set of technologies will be implemented for each. Efficiencies and productivity gains from the use of the new systems are unlikely to be heavily undermined by the deployment of excess or duplicate network infrastructure but the increase in cost and network management burden can be significant. 

The ideal is the creation of a single remote communications infrastructure that can accommodate all the applications a mine site requires. If deploying wireless infrastructure for remote truck monitoring, can that infrastructure be quickly and cost-effectively deployed for CCTV and surveillance systems? Can it be used to provide Voice over IP calls and Internet access into the mining camp?

Bandwidth has always been the great limiter for remote sites. Space segment on satellite was very expensive and it was difficult to deliver high bandwidth throughout a remote site. As the cost of bandwidth has reduced and its availability increased, attention can be turned to the multi-service capabilities of the network. Satellite links provide the secure, point-to-point dedicated bandwidth needed to deliver effective automation applications to the site.  A hybrid approach onsite, based on the best technology for the task, allows for the rapid development of a single multi-service network – that can securely include the networks of sub-contractors or other partners on-site.

Perhaps the best way to consider remote communications is not solely as a connectivity solution but as an important element of business enablement. By creating a robust and manageable network infrastructure, the mine operator is better positioned to introduce greater degrees of automation as business and cost dictate. The remote communications solution selected requires the flexibility and extendable capacity to support the rapidly growing data requirements of every remote mine operation.

It has been suggested that, one day, mining will become a wholly desk-based operation. That may be a little tongue in cheek. However, every mine company – large and small – will look to increase its centralised control of remote mining operations. While evaluating the incredible mine automation solutions that are currently becoming available, take time to consider the remote communications infrastructure needed to support them.