Secure and reliable connectivity imperative to mining

Year 2020 cemented the importance of having a dependable and secure telecommunications network, as COVID-19 forced millions to work remotely and become more reliant on using technology to communicate. Vocus explains what’s next for the industry’s technology revolution.

In the mining industry, the increasing importance of telecommunications networks comes on top of the technology-led transformation already underway, with Industry 4.0, automation and remote operating centres highlighting the significant value of data to operations.

Andrew Wildblood, chief executive of enterprise and government at Vocus, Australia’s specialist fibre and network solutions provider, says the growth in connected technology such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and automation, will see a focus on edge computing, data processing and cloud in 2021.

“In the mining industry, we’re seeing automation used a lot more to reduce costs and in safety, getting people out of dangerous work sites,” Wildblood tells Australian Mining.

“This opens up more opportunities in IoT, everything that is connected and has a sensor provides data, which allows decisions to be made real time on where we go, where to drill, where people are.”

He says with more advanced technology comes the need for a more advanced network that can support it.

“For all of this, you need secure, reliable fibre connectivity and quality communications,” Wildblood says. “Vocus provides strong network assets in key mining regions such as Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia.”

Remote operation centres are commonly based in Australian capital cities, allowing monitoring of operations at mine sites hundreds of kilometres away.

This became a particularly important part of operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. As state borders closed, many mining companies were forced to extend their fly-in fly-out (FIFO) rosters and implement remote working for office-based staff.

However, in the future with edge computing, Vocus anticipates there will be an influx of small data centres built in regional towns. These centres will be connected to fibre networks or via satellite and extended to mine sites to power telecommunications.

“With data centres located closer to mine sites, in places like Karratha and Port Hedland, they only need to receive and send data over tens of kilometres rather than thousands,” Wildblood explains.

Ensuring networks are reliable enough to support the technology used by a modern 24/7 mining operation also means that cyber security must be strong enough to protect the data created.

In a highly automated environment, every piece of equipment connected is exposed to potential cyber attacks.

Mining companies are aware of this hazard, voting cyber as the third biggest risk to operations in the Ernst & Young Top 10 business risks and opportunities 2020 report.

“One of the biggest risks is security, whether it’s the physical security of people at a site, logical security or cyber security from attacks,” Wildblood says.

“If someone can come in via a cyber attack and control a mine site, it is very dangerous and costly, security at the network layer is critical.

“Every single person in an organisation must be acutely aware of the risks or threats, be they physical, cyber or logical security, and help manage how data is collected, stored and used.”

Not only is technology being used for mines to automate operations to keep workers safer and expand profits, it is also being used to improve camp life for FIFO workers.

As COVID-19 meant many workers had to relocate for much of 2020 and spend more time away from their families, they became more entrenched in their remote location.

With a reliable and high-capacity network, workers can bring part of their home and family life to the mine site, making Vocus’ network a key aspect of attracting and retaining employees.

Vocus has seen this firsthand at a number of sites, including Minjar Gold’s operations in Western Australia, which upgraded from a basic network to Vocus’ fibre optic network, increasing its capacity ten-fold.

This feature also appears in the December edition of Australian Mining.

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