To Create Mobility Within a Mine Environment, Take a New Approach to Connectivity with Portable Cell Towers.
By Peter Lenard
With the number of connected devices, sensors and “smart” technologies on the rise, mines are in a unique position to modernize their working environments and gain a number of newly accessible skills, including real-time visibility into the status of people, equipment and operations of their organizations.
However, to support this new toolbox of skills and technologies, mines find themselves faced with another dilemma: the need for a robust, reliable and mobile network that can keep up with these demands 24/7.
Many mines face challenges with their network, and are forced to watch productivity slow to a halt as cellular and traditional wireless networks, such as Wi-Fi, struggle to keep up with dynamic new applications and support automation, and the mobility of the assets that traverse the mine site.
Connectivity to cell towers, which can be few and far between in the remote areas where mining operations are often located, can be further hindered by factors like distance, rugged terrain or extreme weather conditions. Reliable connectivity issues can leave operators feeling trapped and their assets “stranded” without connectivity, limiting productivity and leaving mines in trouble.
What mines need in this day and age are completely mobile networks – a “cell tower on wheels” that can move with and become one with the mine.
Mobility in a Mine
Mines don’t always have enough existing cell towers (or any towers at all) located within their range, and it can take an enormous effort to have one installed in a new location.
But what if, instead of being statically tied to one site, the cell tower had the ability to get up and drive directly to the place you needed it, moving with ease to rapidly expand coverage across the entire area of operation?
These cell towers on wheels could also spread as far and wide as a site requires, flexibly augmenting or creating infrastructure ad hoc to provide ubiquitous coverage across a mining environment – no matter how large or small it is.
And as more connected people, devices and machines join a mine’s operations, new cell towers would simply roll in to provide the increased network support required, as well as work with the nodes already installed on the numerous moving and static assets in a mine.
With the roving connectivity of a cell tower on wheels, the many moving assets that make up a mine – from equipment to vehicles to people – could take robust connectivity with them as they traveled.
The tower would simply follow along, dodging line-of-sight issues caused by large equipment, and seamlessly connecting hot zones to allow operators to maintain unwavering connectivity to, communications with, and control over all the “things” that power more efficient and productive operations.
Giving a network “wheels” means that even outer-edge communications would be reliable, providing a previously impossible direct connection to an operation’s center.
Wireless mesh networks are ideal for this type of configuration across a mine because of their inherent mobility, flexibility of scale and reliability.
Wireless Mesh Networks
In an industry where short periods of operational downtime can cause millions of dollars in losses, mining operators must be empowered to continuously monitor, manage and control their fleets of high-value equipment, vehicles and personnel wherever they roam.
Mine operators can kick-start their organization’s journey to digitization by deploying a kinetic mesh network topology. Proven to stand up to the extremes of mine environments, this type of network allows multiple nodes to connect, broaden and strengthen the network where necessary, effectively connecting sprawling open pit and underground mining operations.
With the nodes essentially acting as compact, rugged, transportable, mini cell towers, virtually anything in the mine’s infrastructure can be turned into networking equipment.
These high-value assets must be carefully managed to ensure uptime is always optimized, which in turn will maximize production. By placing mesh nodes directly on these vehicles, shovels and pumps, the firm can seamlessly link them together – gaining real-time information from each asset’s applications on status, efficiency, maintenance needs, and more, even as they move across the rugged landscape.
Unlike a cellular network, a kinetic mesh network can communicate peer-to-peer seamlessly, via numerous instantaneous connections, forming an adaptable, dynamic network that has the ability to provide reliable wide-range communications practically anywhere. Nodes can easily integrate with existing infrastructure to rapidly extend coverage, communicating with and controlling roaming assets anywhere they move across a site.
Line-of-sight issues cease to be a problem as well. If terrain or moving assets interrupt a cell tower’s line of sight, connectivity can be obstructed with no way around it. Kinetic mesh nodes are mobile, generating more lines of sight, and the mesh networking technology dynamically selects the fastest path from hundreds of potential options to automatically route around interference, signal blockage, etc., without losing a beat.
Cell towers must break connectivity to make handoffs, which creates opportunities for data loss. A kinetic mesh network features node- and frequency-level redundancy, with nodes making multiple simultaneous connections, so no connections must be broken for new ones to be made – keeping critical plant data intact.
Autonomous equipment, aerial surveillance and inspection, automated positioning systems, M2M communications and production reporting are only some of the potential applications that kinetic mesh networks could support in mines across the world.
Case in Point: Mosaic Four Corners
Mining phosphate rock from more than 200,000 acres of company-owned land in central Florida, the Mosaic Co. is a leading producer and marketer of concentrated phosphate and potash. The company’s products are processed into crop nutrients and then shipped to major agricultural centers around the world.
Four Corners formerly operated on a rudimentary mesh network running at about 900 MHz. Its standard point-to-point radios had very low bandwidth, and were spaced up to a mile apart. This resulted in frequent network communication breaks, which slowed operations and delayed phosphate production.
Additionally, Four Corners’ phosphate production is dependent upon draglines, which are constantly in motion, and come with a high capital cost. Actively monitoring dragline operations via ruggedized cameras can minimize costs and user error, but with its low-bandwidth network, Mosaic Four Corners could only support two cameras, making it difficult to pinpoint problems or failing procedures.
To improve the Four Corners communication network, Mosaic partnered with Rapid Systems, a full-service provider of wireless solutions. Rapid Systems implemented Rajant Corp.’s kinetic mesh network, a type of wireless network that has been successfully deployed in other mining facilities.
When Mosaic initially tested Rajant’s network for production control, the mine quickly saw an increase in efficiency and phosphate production, allowing Four Corners to add more functionality to its pumping systems, make remote program changes and create better processes.
Once Mosaic Four Corners had a structured wireless network in place, it deployed – and now operates concurrently – a multitude of new applications, including a company intranet, VoIP phones and video monitoring systems for dragline excavators. The mine implemented highly functioning command centers with detailed dashboards that allow it to monitor even mobile gear such as draglines.
The network also has allowed Mosaic to create and install new applications that aid in the company’s commitment to safety. Wireless information transmitted via the network enables continuous tracking and monitoring of key performance indicators. Static and mobile devices placed at strategic locations help operators track miners and maintain computerized attendance.
This monitoring equipment not only improves productivity, but also reduces the risk of failures and warns miners of adverse conditions and equipment malfunctions. In the event of a failure, the equipment contributes to speedy repair operations.
The Future of Mining
Building a reliable network starts with reliable hardware, and with the introduction of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) applications, mining operators need more from their networks – and they need it now.
From rising bandwidth demands to an increase of devices on the network, the need for unwavering communications are at an all-time high. Traditional fixed or wireless networks simply don’t have the bandwidth, mobility or reliability to support mining operations.
The potential benefits that wireless mesh networks bring when it comes to digitizing industrial operations are limitless, and due to the nature of the mesh network topology, there are numerous ways it can be used to transform a mine’s daily operations. Without the need to trade off one feature for another, kinetic mesh networks provide unwavering bandwidth at high-speed, complete mobility, mission-critical reliability and scalability – a future-ready network.
Peter Lenard is senior vice president of business development for Rajant. Lenard can be reached at [email protected].