Connecting the Connected Mine
Wireless communications help tie together all aspects of large and complex mining operations
By Douglas Bellin and Paul McRoberts
Their challenges are unique. Not only do mining operations span great distances, but they are often located in remote areas with minimal or no communications infrastructure. The very nature of mining operations, with continuous digging or blasting, also means that the landscapes in which communications must take place are constantly changing or expanding. And the need to maintain network uptime is vital to both a mine’s productivity and safety.
The first step for mining companies is to converge their information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT) systems into a single, unified network infrastructure. This eliminates silos of information and, as result, enables seamless information sharing across an entire mining operation.
With the infrastructure in place, mining companies can implement wireless mesh communications to connect their people, places and technologies. Given that mining operations can span hundreds of miles above ground and hundreds of feet below ground, wireless is an ideal solution for connecting everything from underground workers and equipment, to trucks or trains that are hauling materials long distances, to centralized information and analytics tools.
Reimagining Mining Operations
Wireless communications can do more than connect disparate systems and devices. They can support new and better mining applications that help improve efficiencies, enhance safety and reduce costs. Some key wireless-enabled applications include:
Remote Expertise: When mine equipment goes down, every second of lost productivity results in lost profits. It’s imperative that workers have immediate, information- enabled support to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. Remote access can connect workers with the right specialist for the situation — even if that specialist is located thousands of miles away. This can help speed up troubleshooting, make sure the right parts are delivered, and get operations back up and running as soon as possible. Remote specialists also can monitor mining equipment from afar and alert on-site workers of any issues to help avoid downtime in the first place.
Autonomous Transportation: Some mining companies are already using autonomous trucks and trains, which can be monitored and controlled from a central location. In addition to providing efficient transport of materials and freeing up workers to focus on other tasks, autonomous transportation offers potential safety benefits. In the U.S., transportation incidents are the leading cause of workplace fatalities1, and autonomous vehicles could reduce the number of workers on the road.
Wearable Devices: Sensors built into equipment such as wristbands or helmets can help enhance safety in operations. In underground mines, companies can use the sensors to immediately and accurately locate workers in an emergency. In open-pit mines, companies could use the technology to help make sure all employees are accounted for and in a safe place before conducting blasts.
Ventilation on Demand: Smart ventilations systems can help enhance safety and reduce energy costs. They leverage a variety of information in a mine to automatically adjust ventilation underground. For example, if a ventilation- on-demand (VoD) system identifies that a vehicle is running and workers are present in that area, it can run its fans to remove noxious fumes. On the other hand, if people are not nearby, it can lower the fan speed.
Many factors need to be considered when deploying wireless in a mining environment.
First, a site survey should be conducted to help understand a mine’s characteristics and requirements. This is especially important in mining environments because they often have uneven corners and structures, a high likelihood of multipath, and a strong need for high availability and network resiliency.
When specifying equipment for a connected mine, environmental conditions must first be taken into account. The equipment will be exposed to harsh conditions, including high humidity, extreme temperatures and vibrations. Because of this, wireless access devices must either be Class 1, Div 2 certified or housed in Class 1, Div 2-certified enclosures.
Equipment integration also is important. Any equipment used should be designed and tested for seamless connectivity and interoperability with other automation and IT systems. This can reduce configuration time and effort up front, and can reduce the likelihood of unexpected downtime in the long term.
When deploying a wireless network, it should extend to every location in the mining operation where an asset or tag will reach. Also, because both enterprise and control traffic can coexist in a unified network architecture, it’s ideal to have spectral segregation between the two. This means the 5-GHz channel can be shared between the mesh-access-point backhaul and enterprise traffic, and the 2.4-GHz channel can be used to transmit sensitive control traffic.
Finally, security is absolutely essential. Network disruptions can not only impact productivity in a mining operation but also safety. As a result, security must be considered in every part of a network — including the wireless communications — as part of a defense-in-depth (DiD) security approach.
From a configuration standpoint, the Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2) security standard with Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)-level encryption should be used. It is the only security mechanism recommended for industrial wireless LAN applications. WPA2 offers the most advanced security available for industrial settings, and AES encryption does not affect an application’s performance.
Mining companies also should consider using automation systems and devices with built-in security features. For example, control and information systems now use unicasting, which is one-to-one communication. Organizations can use this to explicitly define and limit where data is, and isn’t, sent. It also can help enhance network availability by limiting data flow. Additionally, control systems now support industry-specific ethernet protocols, such as the Common Industrial Protocol (CIP), that have security mechanisms built into them.
Easing the Process
Deploying wireless communications in mining environments can seem an overwhelming task given their large size and scope, and the many critical design decisions that must be made. Mining companies shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to their automation and IT providers for help with everything from site surveys and security assessments to remote support. A number of free resources also are available to provide additional guidance, considerations and best practices for using wireless in a connected mine.
Douglas Bellin is senior manager of global private sector industries, Cisco; and Paul McRoberts is regional manager, industry mining, metals and cement, Rockwell Automation.