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The Way Business Is Moving

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Issue Date: June 2007

Networking at the heart of a mine

June 2007

Converged communications over a tailored networking solution form the basis for operations at Assmang Manganese’s Black Rock mine.

Assmang Manganese recently commenced operations at a new mine in the Northern Cape province, 80 kilometres outside of Kuruman. In establishing the new mine, requirements were set out for communications systems that would enable both voice and data transfers for the mining operation. As vehicle tracking and voice communications are paramount to the functioning of the mine, infrastructure would have to be put in place that offered 100% uptime for these mission critical applications.
Duxbury Networking has designed and implemented a specialised network infrastructure that is a first of its kind in Africa and continues to work with Assmang as the Black Rock mine continues to expand.
Data to the underground
Leon Burger, wireless project manager at Duxbury Networking explains that the Black Rock mining operation benefited from the fact that it was a brand new mine and had no legacy infrastructure to deal with. An integrated data network could be built into the mine along with electrical and other systems.
"Voice was the main driver for the system," explains Burger. "But data communications also form an integral part of the mine's daily functioning."
Voice communication is absolutely vital to the functioning of the mine, which cannot operate if systems go down. Likewise, data connections are used to monitor and track both manned and unmanned vehicles underground, remotely operate equipment and provide connectivity to underground offices and workshops.
Burger says that mines traditionally made use of radio walkie-talkies underground for voice communications and slow UHF/VHF radio data communications. Voice communications to offices above-ground has also been limited in the past.
The system proposed by Duxbury Networking would provide full 54 megabits per second wireless connectivity to the mine's underground operations and seamlessly link to systems in offices on the surface. Special infrastructure would be implemented that could withstand the rugged underground environment and curb the challenges for wireless connectivity presented by large vehicle movement in narrow haulages and the obstructions of earth, concrete and steel.
Ever possible consideration was taken in formulating an effective solution that would provide mission-critical communications to the mine.
"It was also necessary for us to assess the radioactive reaction of minerals encountered in the underground environment to data activity on the 2,4 gigahertz frequency used in wireless networking," says Burger. "The major one being manganese. Fortunately our tests revealed that the effects are minor and do not pose a threat."
Pervasive connectivity
Proxim's Orinoco range of wireless access points were selected to provide connectivity underground. These high-performance access points deliver the scalability for large-scale Wi-Fi deployments, such as that of the Black Rock mine, while being easy to deploy and manage. Proxim products also offer a high-level of security.
A special rugged casing was designed for the Orinoco access points, constructed from cast aluminium and stainless steel covers. These water-tight enclosures are designed to withstand the underground environment and can be easily moved.
Initial plans suggested the use of conventional Wi-Fi antennae mounted in such a way that they would swing out of harms way if hit by mining vehicles. However, given that underground mining trucks all but fill the narrow haulages of the mine, connectivity is often interrupted when vehicles pass by or stop in front of access point antennae.
For this reason it was decided to implement special radiating cable, mounted on cable racks alongside electrical and other cabling and connected to the access points via armoured UTP ports. Radiating cable circumvents obstacles in the wireless networking grid and ensures that communications are never interrupted underground.
"At the moment there is over five kilometres of radiating cable in the Black Rock mine, and this number increases on a daily basis," says Burger.
It was also necessary to install fibre-optic lines for video cameras mounted in underground haulages used for monitoring and the remote operation of equipment.
Along with the access points and radiating and fibre-optic cables, special intelligent junction boxes were designed to accommodate power supplies, power-over-Ethernet devices, fibre terminations and Netgear's GSM7212 network switches.
Converged communications
The connectivity provided to underground mining operation at Black Rock all takes place over six dedicated virtual private networks. This provides vehicle monitoring, tracking, video monitoring, remote equipment operation, connectivity for laptop and other computers underground as well as to converged handset devices carried by mining staff.
Spectralink's Netlink range of handsets were selected for the Black Rock mine. These handsets allow for walkie-talkie like communications using push-to-talk technology, while also functioning as Voice over IP (VoIP) devices for both internal communications and dialling out to conventional telephony and cellular networks from underground.
Powering the voice component of the system are Mitel PABX and controllers. The Spectralink Voice Protocol (SVP) is used for communications; a protocol which is fast becoming the de facto industry standard and compatible with devices from multiple vendors.
Implementation of networking infrastructure was done in conjunction with mining staff and skills were transferred to ensure that the mine can sustain the system.
The system is also fully maintained by the mine, although representatives from Duxbury Networking conduct periodic site inspections to ensure that the system is functioning properly. Backup servers are also maintained that can be switched to in the event of a system failure, allowing the network to continue functioning with little interruption in the event of failures.
The installation at the Black Rock allows the mine to optimise and streamline business processes by providing centralised and specific control over processes, therefore providing a greater return on investment from IT infrastructure.
The mine is completely dependent on the functioning of this network, without which all operations would grind to a halt. This deployment proves that wireless networking technology and voice over IP is ready to take on mission critical solutions in even the most challenging of environments and deliver reliable and robust communications.
For more information contact Susan Moffett, marketing manager, Duxbury Networking, +27 (0)11 351 9800, smoffett@duxnet.co.za, www.duxbury.co.za


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