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Communication is king - Mine site communication systems

Editorial
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If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well the saying goes.

When it comes to communications infrastructure, the truism is particularly applicable. Communication is king at all stages of a project. 

System integration providers such as CSC are being approached earlier by mining companies and Engineering Procurement Construction Management (EPCM) construction contractors wishing to plan ahead and get the most from the latest wireless and digital radio systems that can be used from construction to operation.  

Both the EPCM construction contractor and the owner-operator want to get it right from day one, says CSC principal communications consultant Murray Wales. 

"Many new mines previously had temporary or short term communications technologies, like analogue radio and ad hoc wireless networks," Wales told Ferret.
 
"None were best practice, secure, enterprise supportable or met the corporate standard of the mine operator.   

"When they were handed from the EPCM contractor to the mine operator, they needed to be upgraded or replaced with systems that met the corporate architecture and standards going forward."  

Workforce management like asset and people tracking and access control systems, says Wales, are being planned and implemented for day one of operations, not an add-on down the track when first production is taken care of and work force efficiencies are being sought.  

"The key to getting it right is to plan early," Wales said. 

"Implement systems during construction that will scale to production, meet the end operators corporate security requirements, corporate IT standards and are enterprise supportable. This reduces the need to replace these systems when the operator takes over which is not an uncommon event in the Natural Resources sector. 

"We have seen the need to replace radio, LAN, WAN, wireless and voice telephony systems that the EPCM contractor has implemented for construction that are just not fit for purpose for an ongoing best-practice large global mining operator." 
 
Trends and innovations 
All mine sites have a requirement for Push to Talk (PTT) radio for safety, logistics and informational awareness, but these days more than just voice is wanted.

New digital radios systems incorporate GPS, text SMS, expandable talk groups and advanced lone worker and safety priority calling.

In Vehicle Management Systems (IVMS) for monitoring at-risk driver behaviour such as speeding, impact and heavy breaking can be monitored in real time by a central control room.  

Geo Zoning and tracking of hand held radios that form part of an overall asset and work force safety system can be incorporated into a single source or 'view' on people and asset location.

A training and access management system recently deployed by CSC at major coal mines includes worker training, induction validity and access rights to enter locations and operate specific equipment.   

"These systems are now being required during construction, not only when the mine is operating; This is mainly because work force levels are typically double or triple of that required to operate a mine, and some of the activities during construction are equally hazardous," Wales said.  
 
Access control 
Integrated swipe-card based access management systems are now standard on most mine-sites to protect personnel from hazardous areas and secure commercially sensitive assets. 

"Typically we are implementing systems that are fully-integrated to enterprise level systems like SAP, and automatically enforce compliance to training policies and fatigue management standards," adds CSC senior consultant - mining Jarrod Bassan.  

"This means no-one gets onsite unless they have valid inductions and have not exceeded the maximum hours on site fatigue limit.  

"Some sites are even extending their swipe-card systems to control access to electrical substations and other hazardous areas - only workers with the necessary electrical qualifications can enter the subs."    

The latest advances are in personnel-awareness technologies which can accurately locate a person in the event of an emergency.  

"During an emergency muster, we can not only determine accurately who's at the muster point, but we can locate the 'missing' workers to within a few metres - indoors, outdoors or underground," Bassan told Ferret.  

"These systems can also be turned on to track high-risk personnel like visitors or lone-workers, or to provide more accurate time-recording of contractors." 
 
Today's demands 
Effective communication infrastructure on site is becoming increasingly important as mine operators dig deeper and further.

With some pre-strip and mine infrastructure projects running for years creating extensive open cut pits to reach ore bodies or coal seams, communication infrastructure has had to keep pace. 

 "The owner operator has an increasing input to ensuring the EPCM works towards best practice with systems to support the ongoing production activities brought on earlier, in this critical phase, to obtain the best possible outcome - on-time production."  

"It also ensures that complex systems like Fleet Management Systems (FMS) and the associated intuitive self-healing wireless mesh communications infrastructure that support these mobile assets are well and truly 'burnt-in' before first production." 
 
Challenges 
A remote mine site during early construction lacks pretty much everything: accommodation, communications, work­shops, offices, roads and power. All are needed in the early days of construction.

These systems and the supporting communications infrastructure are required to be easy and quick to deploy.

Temporary infrastructure like trailer based satellite links back to corporate or Internet LAN access, wireless and digital radio systems are needed prior to fixed infrastructure being constructed - like towers, communication shelters and computer rooms.

CSC has developed temporary container and trailer based wireless, communications rooms, radio and wireless mesh systems that can provide these systems early, during construction and even for exploration activities.  

"Mines are increasingly being saturated with a multitude of wireless equipment running mission-critical applications - like truck-dispatch, remote telemetry, video monitoring, even autonomous vehicles," Bassan said.

"However, it just takes one contractor to turn on a wireless device that uses the wrong frequency to cause interference and take-down these systems across site. Therefore, managing the radio frequency spectrum is critical. This is best achieved with good standards and good process for governance." 

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