Making operational decisions through automation

The mining industry woke up to the news of fatalities at a New South Wales coal mine one day in the early 1990s.

Technology was limited in its capability in securing human lives at the time. There was no way of sending messages or tracking the affected miners.

The only silver lining was the development of a technology prompted by the incident. It allowed a message to be sent through the strata underground.

A message would land on a miner’s cap lamp without any antenna or infrastructure, conveying one-directional commands for miners.

This emergency communication solution provided hope for people who worked deep below the earth’s surface in the absence of power, wireless technologies and radio frequency identification (RDIF) communications underground.

That was the start of MST Global’s journey. It spearheaded this technology in partnership with CSIRO shortly after the company was founded in 1989.

“Communication is very important in the underground space,” MST Global chief executive Haydn Roberts tells Australian Mining. “It is very different to how you would do it on surface.

“There is different sorts of challenges when you’re underground. For one, it takes a different platform to be able to communicate. ”

Despite the challenges, MST Global persisted with developing product offerings that revolved around tracking and communication for underground miners. This capability was then extended into the tracking of and communication with equipment, capturing time-sensitive and vehicle health information.

MST Global was yet again the first Australian company that introduced the mining industry to a high bandwidth connection network on digital infrastructure. Pervasive Wi-Fi was finally brought to underground operations in 2004.

Today, the level of automation that is required underground is increasing, whether an operation be fully or remotely automated. There is a leap in the amount of data being pulled out of machines, tracking systems and asset monitoring.

To Roberts, this poses a need for reliable, mission critical communications.

“We see that the bandwidth that you need underground is only increasing. At the same time, people want to have different types of wireless technology to connect to people and devices,” says Roberts.

“For example, people want to be able to turn on a fan if there’s a certain number of miners or machines in a stope, or shut down fans to preserve energy.”

Amidst this rise of automation, MST Global kept to its pioneering ways. The company believes it is imperative to have different types of wireless technology, to have a communication solution that works on high-gigabit fibre network and to have smart infrastructure that allows mine operators to control various different assets underground.

All these requirements will be ticked off in a single product called Axon, which will be launched by the company in the next quarter.

“People talk about having smart cities,” says Roberts. “But what they’re really talking about is having real-time communication for all of their assets around the city.

“It’s the same difference underground. We’re creating a smart platform called Axon that can host automation software to control and monitor a diverse range of assets.”

Roberts explains that in one application of the smart platform, such as tracking, different tracking technologies will be used to locate people and equipment underground.

“We certainly use Wi-Fi as our tracking technology, but there are others we’re investing in that will be a drop-in module for Bluetooth and [low power wireless platform] LoRa, another module that will enable a practical way to deploy LTE underground,” says Roberts.

“There is a growing interest from industry to leverage LTE and emerging 5G technologies underground. So this smart switch will future proof your mine. The whole smart network will be connected by one gigabit of fibre. That’s our differentiation.”

One software that can go on Axon and digitise the workplace in one stride is FARA, which stands for field analysis and reporting application. FARA takes paperwork out of the working environment. When that happens, operators will no longer have time cards or safety check list on paper.

FARA enables users to program their workflow logic into a smart device. For example, a safety walk-around or an equipment check list will be digitised into a smart device and sent to the server wirelessly through either LTE or Wi-Fi.

The software allows mine operators to capture their activities, while giving them a visualisation of their equipment in real time.

“A lot of this generation’s miners are very used to smart devices. In three to five years, the underground mine will be very different from what you see today. It will be a truly digital mine,” Roberts says.

“Geologists, mining engineers and supervisors will still be underground. And those people need to be connected in real time so they know what’s going on around them and be able to respond accordingly.”

This article also appears in the February edition of Australian Mining. 

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