Futureproofing mining’s communications infrastructure

By Carlos Medina | January 14, 2019

Extracting ore so far beneath the surface of the earth makes consistent, reliable communications systems tough to deliver. Then there’s the fact that new infrastructure and systems need to be tested and rolled out, and time is a luxury mining operations rarely have. Things need to work, to be robust and reliable, or risk being abandoned almost immediately.

One of the easiest, most economical way to provide a mine-wide voice communications system is with a two-way radio system on a leaky-feeder infrastructure. The system is easy to deploy, install, and expand. Most importantly, the infrastructure is visible and straightforward so it’s easy to troubleshoot when a problem arises. The downside is that two-way radios are limited in their functionality. And while they are a form of “wireless” communications, they are mostly used for voice communications and have limited data capabilities.

Underground mining systems are improving all the time, requiring enlarged and better capabilities and bandwidths. Unfortunately, in many cases these systems are built on completely different type of infrastructure and cannot communicate with each other. So mines need multiple separate networks like leaky-feeder ones for voice communications, copper wires for voice and limited data, and coax cables for video applications. Often, these separate networks rely on outdated foundational technologies. That makes for communications that are inconsistent, difficult to expand, and incapable of providing the bandwidth needed to support future mining technology.

Regrettably, for turn-key digital solutions that work underground, there are a few options. Most share many common characteristics. But all have at least one of the shortcomings or compromises found in previous iterations of communications infrastructure products. Automation has been plagued by this since its inception—constantly evolving but never standardizing; every platform with its own proprietary protocol.

But there is a solution: fiber optic networks offer many benefits, but the most crucial is their ability to integrate multiple communications platforms into the same transmission system, providing ample bandwidths. So voice communications, Wi-Fi and LTE connections for tablets and mobile devices, and even process and surveillance video streams, can all be operated from the same foundational system and accessed from a single application. Along with this consolidation, fiber optics can provide enough bandwidth to deliver a wireless connection that is as robust in the deep underground as it is up above in the sunshine. And, it enables both above and underground networks to be entirely connected to each other.

Fiber optic networks make an underground mine much more efficient. They are ideal for digital communications, because they are completely immune to electromagnetic interferences. Compared with the copper cables used in communications, fibre optics are lighter, smaller, and less expensive. They show less attenuation, so they can support communications on longer runs and with bigger bandwidths that enable more simultaneous voice and data communications. Nowadays, there are applications that run at 100 Gbps on a couple of optical strands.

Fiber optic networks make possible for management to oversee operations with just an application on a mobile device or desktop. With digital technology and an operations management system app, management can be instantly informed about how tasks are progressing in real-time. Mine operators can quickly identify a potential problem, adjust for it in mid-shift, and allow workers to continue extracting ore with little or no interruption. Mines can operate far more safely and efficiently, more profitably and with less lost time during ore extraction.

Fiber optic networks provide long-term protections, possibilities, and benefits. As more advanced mining technologies become common, they can be expanded almost endlessly. This “future-proofing” allows underground mines to expand the bandwidth available as required, enabling automated or remote mining equipment to function. The infrastructure not only ensures that mines have cutting-edge communications right now, it provides the foundation for new mining technologies to be implemented and used as they become available.

Gone are the days when we were able to install backbone infrastructure that only supports limited voice and data. The new markets and forthcoming industries are and will be defined by key contributors and visionaries who work together to advance in the same direction. The mining sector needs solutions like this, which will connect us to a wide range of applications and possibilities in the future.

It’s time the industry made the jump to digital communications solutions. There is simply no downside. We have the tools to do it. So let’s build the fiber-optic communication systems that will bring the world of underground mining into the light of day.