Keeping an eye on things

Video surveillance technologies have long been implemented as part of perimeter security systems for mine operations. Can mine owners flexibly evolve their CCTV investment to increase productivity and safety through new levels of mine automation? Bernie Branfield, General Manager of Datasat Communications, examines the remote communications issues around adding video functionality to a mine's process and control applications.

Tuesday 13th May 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 provides 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 requires much richer data to function effectively.

Person and asset protection is often cited as a key driver for mine automation.  Access points are moving beyond swipe cards to embrace biometrics such as fingerprint identification. In addition these systems are increasingly supported by facial recognition software that relies on high quality video images.  Worker activity in the 'red zone' can only be remotely monitored using video surveillance. To be fully effective, these images must be transmitted to the control centre in real time or near real time.

Video surveillance also plays a role in monitoring and controlling areas such as driver-less trucks.  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 is 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. 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.

Even where a good deal of the variables can be pre-determined, there is a requirement for continuous monitoring, management and control. That is true as more and more of the mining process becomes 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 without almost zero human intervention. All the time its fuel consumption, tyre pressure and parts are being monitored to ensure optimum efficiency.
The advances in video surveillance technologies with the increasing introduction of IP-based CCTV camera delivers new levels of image quality and system control. The ability to capture and analyse high definition (HD) digital images allows operators a much more granular level of management and control. In addition, advanced video management and video analytics – through elements such as video motion detection – means fewer operators can make sense of the hundreds of video feeds coming back from the installed cameras around the mine site. IP cameras can monitor blast areas, the flow of a conveyor belt or movement of equipment round the yard and provide real-time alerts when pre-defined or situation-based events occur.

Wireless technologies enables the type of rich, bandwidth-hungry applications – both operational and business – that remote sites would have severely struggled to deliver previously. They provide an infrastructure where video systems can be deployed and bandwidth dynamically allocated as individual cameras require to ensure high quality images are available. 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.

There are two key challenges for wireless video technology to properly fulfil its role in remote mine automation. This first is to ensure that the wireless network infrastructure can provide as close to continuous operations as is possible. The second is to ensure that the entire remote communications network is carefully designed so that duplicate and redundant infrastructure doesn't add to the cost and management burden while delivering little benefit terms of productivity or safety.

No one would ever dispute that remote mine sites are dirty and hostile environments. The equipment installed must be rugged and reliable – able to withstand extremely harsh environmental conditions.

At Datasat, we took the unusual step for a communications service provider of developing our own outdoor wireless solutions as we found it challenging to source wireless equipment that could exactly meet client requirements. Our wireless systems meet stringent military standards to deliver continuous operation from +35oC to -40oC with integrated solar power options for instances where other power sources are temporarily or permanently unavailable.

Wireless technology has always had the ability add redundancy to the system through  meshing to enable a number of redundant data paths should one wireless element fail. However, mine sites require a wireless infrastructure with the least amount of equipment that can provide coverage over the greatest area. In addition, the network has to deliver intelligence to the edge. In terms of video technologies, this means cameras dynamically demanding extra bandwidth when an event s triggered.

However, no single technology can provide the communications infrastructure for a remote mine site. The mix of wireless, satellite, 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.  The ideal is the creation of a single remote communications infrastructure that can accommodate all the applications a mine site requires.

Recently while installing a perimeter security system at a Ghanian mine, the mine owner had a requirement to connect a new access control system with its remote control centre. The wireless network deployed for perimeter security was quickly and cost-effectively adapted to securely support the new system. This is only a small example of how a single well planned infrastructure can effectively deliver multiple communication services to the remote 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. As video technology becomes a greater part of process and control systems, the remote communications solution selected requires the flexibility and extendable capacity to support the rapidly growing rich data requirements of today's remote mine operation.