Underground mining networks unearthed

There are significant challenges associated with installing network infrastructure in underground mine sites. Australian Mining uncovers the risks associated with cyber security in these environments.

Mining operations are more technologically integrated than ever before.

While safety has remained a key priority in the mining industry for decades, the paradigm is shifting.

Automation and smart technology have paved the way for digital practices due to their ability to enhance operational efficiencies and off-site accessibility.

With COVID-19 only adding to the speed at which these technologies are adopted, it’s just as important to protect a business in cyberspace as it is to protect its production output.

In September 2020, a survey from Secolve found that 78 percent of the more than 2000 risk, compliance and security specialists surveyed were concerned there would be a cyber security attack at their business within the next 12 months.

Among those with the greatest fear were mining, energy and utilities companies.

Alarmingly, only 31 per cent used a third party to test their operational technology (OT) security, with just one in 10 businesses not undertaking reviews or updates to their OT security in the past two years.

The OT network (also known as the production network) was previously separate from all external and internal network traffic.

According to KPMG partner, technology risk & cyber security Angela Pak, smart technologies and interconnected devices, including automated machinery now use both legacy OT systems and IT-operated systems, which has led to further vulnerabilities.

Pak says more stringent cyber security measures are being pushed, however organisations need to stay well prepared.

“We are seeing a change in focus across various mining boards, audit and risk committees and executive forum questions are being asked relating to cyber security exposure and impact to the business,” Pak tells Australian Mining.

“These conversations have highlighted the need for not just greater cyber resilience, but also preparedness to respond should a cyber incident eventuate.”

Pak says a number of factors have hindered mining companies’ understanding and consideration of cyber security.

These include concerns that security measures are an overhead impacting production, skill shortages, the complexity of global operations, a lack of consideration relating to third party risk and limited cyber security awareness.

The onset of COVID-19, for example, has forced many regular practices to be introduced into the digital space.

“A COVID-19 response for many companies has created another layer of risk with the increasing use of remote access services. The challenge to an organisation’s secure bubble during this time has increased the ‘attack surface’ for many mining organisations,” Pak explains.

“Mining companies more than ever need clear visibility over potential points of entry into the organisation, location of the organisation’s most critical assets and ensuring their people and key third parties have a strong understanding of their roles and responsibilities regarding cyber security.”

Going underground

Vernetzen, an industrial network and cyber security company, specialises in OT networks and cyber security, particularly in underground environments.

Managing director Luke King says that in his experience, the implementation of an underground network poses several challenges.

“The primary problem for underground networks is twofold. Long linear wireless coverage and electrical availability,” King tells Australian Mining.

“In the typical IT environment,  there’s an airconditioned space where the focus is just on the OT network element. In an underground mine you need to supply and run every element in order to power it.”

Vernetzen offers a complete system that can also distribute power across an entire network.

“Our solution is an all-in-one underground network system that also provides the power through a diverse electrical distribution, so it provides redundancy just like you’d have redundancy in a network,” King explains.

“The actual network itself is only 30 per cent of the problem solving. It’s not just one item in itself – everything needs to be looked at from connectivity to security to process.”

According to King, a more robust system can mitigate cyber security issues that may impose real-life consequences if a machine activates without the knowledge of on-site personnel.

“We’ve been asked to be involved in investigating an incident where an operator located remotely from site started a conveyor belt,” King says.

“On site, there were workers that were unaware that work was going to occur and they did not isolate the conveyor belt as it was located further away from where they were working. This conveyor belt dumped rock over these workers and seriously injured one of the workers there.

“That type of incident rapidly highlights how the miner is trying to utilise technology, but at the same time have not adequately considered the required cyber security practices.”

King says it is important for operations to adopt a complete ‘concept to implementation’ strategy, rather than a temporary solution that runs the risk of security breaches.

“There’s a push to provide connectivity without a substantial review of the cyber security implications from providing that level of access,” he says.

“That’s been a huge driver for a lot of temporary solutions to provide levels of access to things that would definitely be identified as ‘backdoors’.”

King agrees that the pandemic has also increased the vulnerability of companies with an inadequate cyber security setup.

“It’s definitely elevated the risk,” King says. “There is a push for more remote operations, but there are limited options out there for secure remote access solutions that still allows operators and third parties a simple process to accessing these OT networks at a reasonable performance. 

“This issue is increasing the risk of more backdoors and circumventing of secure controls, just so staff can carry out day-to-day tasks.”

More risks can also be expected as the adoption rate increases among mining companies.

To combat this, Vernetzen offers solutions that provide secure remote access specifically designed for OT networks and monitoring services from its Critical Infrastructure Cyber Centre (CICC).

“Cyber security is definitely becoming a significant issue for large infrastructure companies like miners,” King says.

“The starting point for underground mining as far as technology maturity goes is very low.

“So while there’s been a rapid push to implement more technology in the underground environment, the procedures and understanding of what effect that has regarding cyber security is the big challenge.”

Collaboration and innovation

Swedish-based company Mobilaris Mining & Civil Engineering is another entity that is pushing the boundaries in underground mine networking.

Mobilaris has worked alongside mine operators to advance its underground communication products and services, which bring forward innovative underground and open pit mining solutions that enhance safety and productivity.

Mobilaris Mining & Civil Engineering VP strategic product management and business development Hans Wahlquist and Mobilaris sales & business development manager Australia George Aslanis say collaboration is crucial to advancing the company’s underground solutions.

“It works in both ways,” Wahlquist tells Australian Mining. “We get valuable insights in real challenges and gets access to live mines to perform our development in.

“The mines get innovative ideas that drive both safety and productivity, as well as an early buy-in among the miners as we are often seen in the mine. 

“By having physically been in many mines and understood their respective situation has led to a unique global insight in mining. It is not rocket science but pure hard work.

Wahlquist believes that off-the-shelf position accuracy products do not have the technological advancements to provide in-vehicle navigation and traffic management.

“Instead, specialised and quite costly additional technologies (based on time-of-flight technologies) have been the only available remedy for those use-cases,” Wahlquist says.

And while expensive options using ultra-wide-band and time-of-flight technologies exist on the market, Mobilaris has embarked on creating a low-cost position accuracy alternative, called Mobilaris Hybrid Positioning.

“This unique innovation is based upon cutting edge sensor fusion, artificial intelligence, advanced mathematics and allows for self-sustained positioning of a vehicle with five to 10 metres accuracy without any dedicated infrastructure for positioning,” Wahlquist says.

“It does not require any specialised or costly hardware. Instead, it is designed to run on a standard Android tablet.”

“Our own experience together with testimonials from customers makes us totally convinced that this new disruptive innovation will dramatically change underground mining.”

The solution, when combined with the Mobilaris Onboard tablet, acts similar to a GPS-enabled car navigator, allowing the mine to keep track of the vehicle at all times.

“When there is a network connection available, the precise position of the vehicle is sent to the Mobilaris Mining Intelligence system so it can be seen by everyone else,” Wahlquist says.

Mobilaris’ software is also developed with secure software design principles, as the company identifies the growing risks associated with digital technology.

The complexity of building an underground network, however, is based around a lack of maintenance rather than the technology itself, Wahlquist continues.

“Today, building a modern underground network is not a complicated thing anymore,” Wahlquist says.

“Technology is not the problem, rather to maintain it and to see to that the underground network is healthy and well-maintained.”

This article also appears in the March issue of Australian Mining.

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