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Decades-old technology gets new purpose underground

Maestro Digital Mine introduces Plexus Powernet, which uses copper coaxial cable to get data from the mine face to surface faster.

As mines rely more on real-time information and advanced diagnostics, the need for pervasive connectivity has become more critical.

Maestro Digital Mine has come up with a solution that borrows from an old method of delivering TV channels and the Internet to the home: a copper coaxial cable network.

Currently, modern mines use fibre-optic communication networks underground for voice, data, video and autonomous vehicle applications. The fibre cable is fragile and prone to breakage from blast concussion and damage from mobile equipment. Fibre splicing and termination is very delicate and requires an ultra-clean environment and expensive equipment.

In short, getting fibre-optic networks in the “last mile” of the mine is difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

The Plexus PowerNet is the latest creation from Maestro that is being touted as yet another way for mines to incorporate digital innovation. It is the world’s first coaxial gigabit network designed to be a simple and efficient means of getting data from the underground workings back to the command centre.

“It is designed to distribute the mine's network to the working face,” said David Ballantyne, Maestro's vice-president of product development. “It uses coaxial cable instead of fibre, so it is easier for the mine to work with and the guys to terminate and advance the network (connect wire to a device).”

Data and power are combined on the same cable, so the network powers the end point devices to eliminate additional infrastructure and reduce installation cost and time, he said.

The cable and fittings are already designed to withstand a lot of punishment. Ballantyne said while working on this problem he was looking at coaxial cables, which had been designed to transfer information over long distances.

“These cables we've used since the late 1960s and are the same cables used for the cable TV industry,” he said. “There's tens of thousands of kilometres of cables in Sudbury alone, and they terminated on telephone poles.”

Those same cables can also withstand a wide range of temperature and weather conditions, making them ideal for mines, where blasting happens almost daily and temperatures become increasingly hotter as they go deeper into the mine.

Mine operations can now add devices on the same cable without adding another separate power to each device.

“It cuts down on infrastructure costs and it gets the data to an area really quickly,” Ballantyne said.

One of the other drivers behind this innovation is cost reduction. Michael Gribbons, Maestro's vice-president of marketing and sales, said this approach reduces capital costs by 40 to 70 per cent.

Along with high bandwidth requirements, it is important for the network to have ultra low latency and jitter so that autonomous vehicles can be safely operated underground.

Gribbons said the first installation involved the most complex application, an autonomous Sandvik LHD (Lift Haul Dump) vehicle. This quickly proved to the mining industry that the technology worked as designed.

The network can be installed and maintained by any internal tradesperson, eliminating the need for costly outside fibre-optic contractors, an internal specialist, or expensive tools. The network is fully CISCO compliant so that the client can use all their existing software tools to support it from surface or even remotely in another city or country.

“Many mines only have one or two instrument technicians,” Gribbons said. “If an underground network is damaged, it could take hours, or even days, to repair them, and if the technician is on vacation, technology operations can come to a halt.”

Besides breakage, fibre-optic has to be clean for it to work effectively. Terminations need to be perfectly sealed from dust and humidity, both of which can be difficult in an underground mine.

“Fibre will still be used to bring data to the mine level, but the Plexus PowerNet will take it to the internal difficult mine workings, known as the face,” Gribbons said.

Gribbons said he can see a future where mines are almost completely automated, with a central command centre operating multiple sites. Products like the Plexus PowerNet would help advance the network into the internal workings of the mine.

The reason mines are embracing new technology is primarily productivity-driven. Gribbons said having more efficient technology can also drive down capital and operating costs, which are becoming a major concern for mining as they are chasing deeper ore bodies with lower ore grades.

Safety is also a major concern for mining companies and removing miners from the most dangerous locations is also directing the industry toward autonomous and remote-operated equipment. The miners can operate in a safe and clean environment from a remote command centre. The has proven to improve productivity by 20 per cent, and reduce maintenance of mobile equipment by 25 per cent in autonomous applications.

Maestro has just started to market the patent-pending Plexus PowerNet network, and the company already has orders from 17 mines located in Canada, the United States, Australia and Finland.

Gribbons said he expects to have 50 installations by the end of 2018.