As mining operators augment profitability by reducing operating costs, raise asset utilisation and improving safety performance, there has never been a greater need for digitalisation within the mining sector. With mines growing deeper underground and new reserves located predominantly in remote locations, it is becoming abundantly clear that technology has a huge part to play.
With the fourth industrial revolution beckoning, increasing numbers of next-generation technologies such as sensors, automated or self-controlled equipment and data-heavy automation solutions are being adopted to allow for smoother and more efficient operations. All of this, however, requires reliable, high-bandwidth connectivity to manage the large amounts of data necessary for the successful daily running of the mine.
Ensuring mission-critical communication
Robust high bandwidth networks are imperative for mission-critical communication that goes on within the mine – both above and below ground. Data links are the backbone of automated operations and safety-critical infrastructure by transmitting information from sensors, CCTV and voice communication throughout the mine. Data streams need to pass over long distances and through challenging environments.
Next to the quasi-unlimited data bandwidth, fibre optic links are also intrinsically immune to electromagnetic fields, provide galvanic insulation and remain future-proof while permitting for bandwidth extension as demand grows. But the harsh environments of a mine can also pose a risk for the physical integrity of such networks.
With mining operations heavily reliant on their communications infrastructure to keep operations running, the invulnerability of the link to and between personnel and machines underground is crucial. Any outages or failures can result in downtime, the costs of which scale rapidly with duration. In order to avoid this, it is vital that companies adopt high-performance, high-quality and long-life solutions that enable seamless underground connectivity.
Quick and easy-to-deploy infrastructure is key
In mining, production depends entirely upon having a network which is continuously accessible for reliable communication between sensors, workers and machines. With so much relying on it, it is evident that any damage to a mine’s fibre optic network can cause significant expense and safety hazards. Network failure and outages prove a major headache for operators with personnel having to be removed and work stopped in affected areas underground. Therefore, it is essential there is a quick fix for when things go wrong and damage occurs.
The ability to repair a network quickly is a serious challenge faced by companies throughout the industry, with issues underground being time-consuming to solve. Finding an available qualified fibre optic engineer certified to work underground at short notice is challenging and costs for such experts are high.
Whilst damage to fibre optic networks cannot be completely prevented, there is an answer for operators looking to reduce downtime on the network and get back to normal much quicker in the event of a network malfunction. The trick is to use quick and easy-to-deploy infrastructure that enables fast, rapid repair – even by staff who are unskilled in fibre optic engineering.
Utilise plug and play technology
HUBER+SUHNER and Ampcontrol have combined their respective knowledge to form a speedy, innovative solution called H3RO – a robust toolkit for fibre optic networks designed for the harsh conditions in underground mines. Rapidly installed and maintained, it enables mines to deploy and expand their networks conveniently and hassle-free. Moreover, it allows them to get back to normal quickly and efficiently when things go wrong.
H3RO comprises a set of pre-terminated modular fibre optic cable assemblies and fibre optic breakout terminals (distribution units) which removes the need for specially trained engineers for installation. Its plug and play elements support standardisation across mines of all sizes and regions. This has allowed for reductions in cost, easier rollout, consolidation of spares and consistency for high-quality expansion within tough environmental conditions.
Combining telco-grade low-loss high density push-pull and screw-on connectors with fit-for-purpose industrial breakout terminals (BOTs), cable armour and glands, a reliable and robust industrial solution has been formed. The BOTs remove the necessity of having large enclosures and minimises common failure points, such as unnecessary patching and needless connector exposure. This single-mode fibre optic system supports both Passive Optical Network (PON) models and traditional Ethernet, replacing the need for time-consuming fibre optic terminations in the field with a standardised future-proof infrastructure.
With communication networks being critical to the core of operations, it is essential that mine operators have access to quick and easy solutions for when failures occur or when network expansion is required.
Typical H3RO fibre optic networking connection within underground mine site
Bringing the concept to reality
In most cases, when a mine’s network is damaged, work ceases due to the loss of essential safety communication between those working on the surface and those underground, along with the ability to continue operating autonomous machinery or other digitalised features. However, when a copper and gold mine in Western New South Wales, Australia, experienced an outage caused by the severing of a communications cable, downtime was limited to the shortest time possible by adopting the innovative solution to ensure a quick and simple repair.
As a result of H3RO’s ease of use, workers unskilled in fibre optics were able to safely deploy the solution and enact a fix to get the mine’s operations back up and running. The IP68 connectors and bulkheads allowed for the system to be seamlessly integrated within the existing infrastructure. The hassle-free, simple repair instilled confidence for future fast recovery in similar incidents or potential network expansion.
When installing new or replacement infrastructure, it is quite common for parts to be modified in the field to fit with the existing setup. This can be problematic within the harsh environments of the mine, which can see the fibres being exposed to dust, mud and other potentially damaging elements – however, since H3RO’s modularity covers a breadth of application embodiments, additional modifications were not necessary. The mine workers simply swapped out the damaged section for the newer one – meaning time-consuming fibre field splicing was not required.
Another deployment saw the same solution providing network connectivity to underground mining equipment within a coal site, where autonomous operations were carried out with machinery. The fibre optic backbone required throughout the mine needed to offer easy integration with new and existing equipment, including third-party panels and components.
Due to the functionality of the system, monitoring and control of underground equipment was achieved by utilising pre-existing FOBOT panels throughout the mine, enabling rapid, uncomplicated expansion of the network by site staff and resulted in a high-quality, low-loss dynamic network. With a robust solution created specifically for use within harsh environments, mine operators can be certain that their fibre optic infrastructures not only deliver high performance but high levels of practicality too.
Preparing for the demands of the future
There are many options for mining operators to consider when selecting fibre optic infrastructure for their communication networks and connectivity. A report by the World Economic Forum and Accenture forecasts that by 2025 digitalisation will have added more than US$425 billion of value to the mining industry, with around 1000 lives saved and 44 000 injuries prevented. As such, the sector will rely more and more on next-generation technology as they increasingly become squeezed for higher efficiency and profits. With so much riding on their networks, it is essential that companies take advantage of systems that are simple, risk-free and cost-effective and that will upgrade and improve performance within the mine while offering easy adaptability and expansion for future requirements.
This article was written and published by Dr Thomas Paul and John Hooper for the latest edition of Global Mining Review.