Vernetzen makes automation dreams a reality

A big hurdle in the way of implementing autonomous haulage systems underground isn’t the equipment, but instead the backbone of the operation. Australian Mining speaks with Vernetzen about its innovative Wi-Fi solution.

Underground operations remain a focal point for innovators in the mining sector.

Known as one of the harshest working environments, the mining equipment, technology and services (METS) sector has collaborated with sites to develop technologies that not only keep people safe, but drive productivity improvements. The ramp-up in development of autonomous underground vehicles is testament to this.

However, the transition by mining companies to autonomous operations has been relatively slow, simply because the integration of an autonomous haulage system requires a large, complex and capital intensive network.

“That’s been a big issue,” Luke King, managing director of industrial networks company Vernetzen, tells Australian Mining.

“Underground mine operators want to embrace automation and autonomous haulage systems in particular, but what’s been holding them back is a network that is cost effective and easy to operate.”

Going with an LTE network calls for a significant investment in telecommunications expertise or in outsourcing its network operations. Similarly, selecting a traditional Wi-Fi deployment incurs hefty costs to establish multiple Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the site. These options are difficult to justify from a return of investment (ROI) perspective for many mining companies.

Vernetzen has recognised this dilemma and developed a network that is both cost effective and easy to operate.

The company embarked on an 18-month journey in Australia to achieve this, creating what it describes as “the most future-proof industrial vehicle network” currently available.

Called Wi-Fi over Coax, the solution delivers blanket wireless coverage for up to 500 metres from a single unit. 

From a support point of view, it is simpler than LTE and much quicker to install in comparison to traditional omnidirectional Wi-Fi.

It incorporates a radio headend, Wi-Fi access points and “leaky feeder” technology into a single device that delivers easy-to-maintain, ruggedised, high-bandwidth Wi-Fi coverage.

This exact solution, connected to an underground optical fibre backbone, was used to trial the teleremote operation of a Sandvik loader at a Western Australian gold mine from Perth this year.

“One of the largest mining contractors in the world had been trying to move towards fleet automation. The problem was, they had been restricted by the cost and complexity of the underground network,” King says.

“They don’t want to hire a bunch of IT technicians or spend more money than what’s already costing them to mine – it has to be more efficient.”

The trial proved to be a success – the loader operated as expected based on a network speed of 58 to 100 megabits per second, way above what a traditional National Broadband Network (NBN) is capable of delivering in a standard setting.

This trial and others have proved beyond doubt that the Vernetzen underground Wi-Fi solution can meet the high availability and resiliency required by underground mining automation and process control.

While it would typically take two shifts to install an equivalent Wi-Fi coverage on a traditional system, it takes only a few hours to install Vernetzen’s solution.

“They’re not looking for technologies that are complicated and require sophisticated skills to manage,” King says.

“They want to use the existing resources to be able to build and manage these networks.”

The Wi-Fi over Coax solution has been specifically designed to fit to the operating model of an underground mine.

A traditional mining team can install the network safely without involving a third party or other engineers. And mine operators are able to use their resources more efficiently, limiting any downtime for mining equipment.

With a solid network foundation in place, other automaton solutions such as vehicle tracking, proximity detection, fleet analytics and ventilation on demand can be deployed much more efficiently and effectively.

Cyber security is another key consideration when deploying automation and autonomous solutions.

“Any production or critical system that can cause injury needs to have a very effective cyber security strategy as part of the deployment,” King explains.

“We have conducted many risk assessments over our Wi-Fi over Coax solution and as a consequence, we have designed it to be very inherently secure.

“For someone to take control of a remote vehicle, its network system has to be as secure as possible. Ours delivers just that.”

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

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