With our vast geographical size, diverse and remote mine sites and notoriously rugged environment, mining in Australia is hard work, particularly when there is a lack of communication options, writes Luke Frost.
Running a modern business under such tough conditions is fraught with dangers and difficulties, and successful operation in today’s increasingly competitive market can not withstand disruptions to business continuity. Communications are absolutely integral to operating a modern mine, but getting a reliable network of phone, broadband and mobile signals out to many mine sites is a mission in itself.
Apart from supporting critical systems such as production and automation, security, access control and enterprise services, reliable communications play a big part in the wellbeing and morale of employees. Modern technology and techniques are overcoming many of the challenges involved, even as demand for communications become more sophisticated.
Rolling out a physical line to each site is a costly and sometimes difficult exercise. As most mines are in sparsely populated areas, mobile, broadband and usually even landline coverage is non-existent. Regional telecommunications providers will generally be hesitant to invest in infrastructure required to send services out to a remote mine, as there is just not enough volume of customers to justify the expense. Therefore it is usually inherent on the mine itself to provide communications.
Firstly, the business requirements must be taken care of. This means a fast, reliable internet service transmitting back to headquarters or a data centre for email, business applications, backups and data storage, as well as business landlines. Second, the site needs on-site communication networks connecting departments and workers to one another, as well as machine-to-machine networks.
There are several ways of achieving this; satellite communications are perhaps the most obvious solution, especially during the initial phases of exploration and construction before a fixed copper or fibre line goes in. This literally involves a signal from the service provider’s satellite orbiting above the country, directed onto a specific set of coordinates on the ground below.
The mine operator and service provider can negotiate a set rate for calls on sat phones, and terminals can be set up at points throughout the site. There are two varieties of signal – the L-band, which is cheaper to install but has a smaller capacity, and the VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal), which has a much higher capacity for data transmission. Portable terminals can be set up quickly and easily throughout the site.
Despite the issues of remoteness, it is sometimes possible to get an internet link into a remote site, which can be greatly improved by the addition of some kind of Wide Area Network (WAN) optimisation. Any link into a remote site will generally be expensive and slow due to the distances involved, so increasing the capacity of the line makes good sense.
While there are several options for speeding up a weak, remote line, Lycopodium Minerals recently deployed a Silver Peak software-based solution to each of their remote sites, with CIO Andrew Macbeth reporting a 33 per cent improvement in data speed across the board. Fibre broadband will change the playing field again, with much higher data capacity and speeds possible. As the NBN rolls out to more parts of the country, fibre broadband will become more widely available closer to remote centres, which will enhance access to enterprise business services back in the main business hubs.
Gigabyte Passive Optical Networks (GPON) can be set up for mining camps, enabling sophisticated communications and connectivity in remote areas. Pre-terminated systems allow transient, remote workstations to connect to a fast and reliable network that is easy to deploy and easy to relocate. Essentially, optical-fibre broadband in a box, or at least a relatively transportable solution.
Communications at the mine itself are usually achieved through a mix of mobile signals and WiFi access points throughout the site. Small mobile cells can be placed throughout a site, which will enhance connectivity and increase the range of mobile phone calls.
Faster and more reliable internet connections also mean that more communications can be moved to the internet, with Voice over IP (VoIP) becoming a viable option in some cases. This reduces or removes the cost of placing landline services in mining camps and support centres, with clear voice calls transmitted over the internet at a fraction of the cost. This is also a vastly more flexible solution, as services can be switched on and off as required by a service provider, without the need for specialist infrastructure.
WiFi access points throughout the camp and mine site create a network of wireless connectivity for devices. Troy Chen from networking specialists Level One states: “the position of WiFi access points (APs) should be carefully planned to get as much out of them as possible. Correct positioning avoids having signals that interfere with one another, and having your access points at optimal places around the site can improve their performance – for example, an AP that is placed high up on a wall or pole will generally cast a signal further than one placed lower down.”
Machine-to-machine communication is becoming vitally important in mine sites as well, as a crucial function of the Internet of Things (IoT). Automation and control, as well as a host of other production services, benefit from devices being able to connect and communicate with one another.
Again, a reliable internet service is crucial to this functionality, so having strong, well-planned communications strategy is increasing in importance to modern mining operations.
“Fibre broadband will change the playing field again, with much higher data capacity and speeds possible.”