Vale Canada Ltd. is charging forward to provide LTE communications in its Canadian underground mining operations. In some cases, this will be an all new level of wireless communication, while in other cases it will mean switching away from existing Wi-Fi.
Vale said this means the company will soon be operating the largest privately owned underground LTE network in the world. LTE, or long-term evolution, is a higher form of wireless communications that most people associate with their cellular phones. In the mines, LTE will support a host of wireless devices and live connections to people and mobile equipment.
Vale described their new LTE system as an enabler, something that will allow the company to carry out significant changes for integrated operations scheduling, autonomous and tele-remote mining machines and huge efficiencies and cost savings for underground mine ventilation systems.
“We have changed the way we work here at Vale,” said Brad Atkins, manager of digital transformation for Vale’s North Atlantic operations. “We have very high interaction with each other. We also do continuous improvements every two weeks. Historically, a project does a ‘Lessons Learned’ (briefing) at the end of the project and we comment on things we would never do again.
“We now do that every two weeks,” he said. “One of the things that we found out was that for us as a team, the work was getting very well integrated, but our communications weren’t.”
He said the goal is to have more departments integrate their work, their schedules and their planning, all while taking advantage of the technology. Atkins said the plan for the company’s digital transformation follows a detailed program consisting of eight elements: connectivity and tracking; smart plant infrastructure; a digital workforce; mine automation; integrated scheduling and planning; advanced analytics; HSE (health, safety, environment) risk reduction; and innovation.
Atkins said implementing the digital workforce would mean equipping miners with smartphones, tablets or a similar device to help them “make the right decisions at the right time.” He said this would allow live communication between workers as well as between surface and underground.
“We need network access in our mines. We need to know where our people are to ensure they’re safe during an emergency,” said Atkins.
If there was an emergency underground, the LTE-based tracking system would let the company know that workers were heading for refuge stations. It would also reveal if a miner was trapped in a remote part of the mine or walking in the wrong direction away from a refuge station.
On the matter of connectivity, Chris Bertrand, an enterprise application architect on information technology, said while Wi-Fi was considered the leading technology at one time, LTE is seen as more versatile, reliable and efficient.
Despite an initial concern of poor tracking via LTE, Bertrand said Vale overcame that with an in-house solution, creating a device that uses two technologies – Bluetooth and radio-frequency identification (RFID) – to connect people and machines to the LTE network.
Atkins said the smart plant infrastructure is one of the key elements being worked on by Yves Leveille, the chief engineer for designing the ventilation systems, considering that people and equipment are being sent deeper and deeper into the mines, where the environment is warmer.
“We need to ensure they are cooled appropriately so that we can have the right work being done at the right time and we’re not having to stop because of heat exhaustion and those types of things,” said Atkins.
Cost effectiveness is also a major concern for ventilation. Atkins said there is no need to be running the huge vent fans if there is no one working on a specific level.
It means more fresh air can be diverted to working levels, or to open up new production areas if necessary.
Leveille remarked that the cost savings from managing ventilation systems could be in the millions of dollars.
Mine automation is another significant change in the works for Vale operations, said Atkins.
This is where mobile equipment, controlled from surface, can continue to operate during the times of shift changes and after blasting takes place. LTE enables that technology.
It means, for example, that a remotely operated scooptram can continue mucking from a draw point and hauling to the ore pass despite any residual blasting gas, or when the new shift of miners is still preparing to go underground.
This can result in additional mucking of up to six hours a day on any particular level of the mine.
Part and parcel of the digital transformation, said Atkins, is the whole process of integrated operations scheduling (IOS). It is being headed up by Christine Gasteiger, the IOS lead in Sudbury.
She said this will involve having all supervisors and workers informed of their assigned work every day via computer software.
It will enable them to foresee any potential conflicts or create opportunities for improvement.
She said in the event there is a problem in one work area, a miner can more easily be assigned to another work area that fits with their specific qualifications and experience.
Atkins said when a worker is assigned a new task in a different work area it raises a safety issue.
“Planned work is much safer than unplanned work,” he said. He said it also relieves frustration that workers experience when they can’t do their jobs as planned.
“We’ve got great people and they want to do great work.”
He added that a worker gets just as frustrated when the tools or mobile equipment needed for a specific job are not available. He gave the example of a worker having to search for two hours around the mine to find screening materials.
“By the time he finds that screen, is he in the right mental state to want to work safely, to want to work productively? Probably not.
“So we can move some of those frustrations and let our workers do the work we know they’re capable of,” said Atkins.
Richard Deisinger, Vale’s LTE connectivity project manager, said the initiative is a big one, but Vale is committed to making it work and reaping the cost benefits.
He will be among those overseeing the installation of thousands of metres of antenna cable on the ramps and throughout the mines, to enable the people and machines to be continually in touch.
“A good example of what has recently happened is at the Garson Mine; we had visitors who were underground and we very excited to see the proof of concept for the LTE network that we have.
“They were being toured around and while they were being toured around they were having a video conference with some colleagues – I think in Toronto – so it was huge excitement for them to show off the technology that they could have a video conference in a moving vehicle underground,” said Deisinger with a grin.
This story originally appeared in the Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal.