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Mine-wide fibre network provides real time data

September 1, 2009
by Norm Tollinsky
In: Technology with 0 Comments

A combined fixed and wireless, mine-wide fibre-optic network will make Xstrata’s Nickel Rim South Mine one of the most advanced underground operations in the world.

Until now, mines have sprouted multiple, isolated systems, or “islands of automation,” said Erik Bartsch, Nickel Rim South’s mine operations technology leader. The vision for Nickel Rim South is to tie all of these systems together. With a robust, mine-wide network in place, new IP-based technologies can be added at any time without requiring “the whole payload of additional capital and infrastructure.”

The mine-wide fibre network will enable ventilation on demand, asset tracking, condition monitoring, voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) and automated hoisting.

Access to real-time data from underground mobile equipment is one of the benefits of Nickel Rim South’s fibre network. Instead of manually logging information about equipment performance, data will be transmitted wirelessly through the network to surface.

“The equipment we have been buying has a lot of smarts on them, but we have never really taken full advantage of them,” said Bartsch. Maintenance and production information such as run hours, oil temperatures, service intervals, metres drilled and deviation from plan will all be transmitted into a central database and available in real time. Instead of copying the data to a memory stick and bringing it to surface, it will be transmitted wirelessly. The number of trips made by loaders and the weight of the material in their buckets will also be available.

Ventilation on demand

An asset tracking system using RFID tags on mobile equipment will support a cutting-edge ventilation on demand system with the information required to supply air where it’s needed. Nickel Rim South Mine is planning a staged implementation of ventilation on demand to ensure a smooth and trouble-free deployment.

In the first phase of the deployment, the objective will be to remotely operate and monitor louvers, flow measurement devices and air analysis equipment from surface. Once that’s working to everyone’s satisfaction, the plan is to move to schedule-based ventilation, which adjusts and directs airflow in accordance with activities and time of day. In the third and final phase, the system will intelligently deliver ventilation based on information it receives on the location of mobile equipment.

The phased rollout is necessary to make sure all of the potential problems are identified and overcome.

“You don’t get a lot of room for errors,” said Bartsch. “People can lose faith in a system very quickly, so it’s very important to do our homework. We have to find the right balance between getting the system implemented in a reasonable timeframe and making sure it’s robust enough to stand the test of time.”

Xstrata Nickel looked at five ventilation on demand suppliers and selected a system from Simsmart, a Montreal-based company specializing in process engineering, optimization and training products for the U.S. Navy, the Canadian Armed Forces and other military forces around the world.

Simsmart was the only supplier with a product that’s ready to deliver all three phases, including dynamic ventilation control based on tracking of mobile equipment, said Bartsch.

Proponents of ventilation on demand claim energy savings as high as 40 to 50 per cent, but Nickel Rim South has set a more “reasonable” target of trimming power costs by 25 per cent.

“Saving money on energy consumption is good, but the big advantage of ventilation on demand is that it allows you to put the air you have where you need it. That has all kinds of benefits in terms of improving productivity.”

Expanding a mine often requires additional capital costs for ventilation, but with ventilation on demand, a mine is able to use what it has more wisely by supplying air where and when it’s needed and without going to the expense of adding capacity.


Nickel Rim South will also be equipped for a VoIP communication system, but once again, management  plans to move slowly. A parallel leaky feeder system and conventional radios were used during the development of the mine and will continue to be used until mine management is comfortable switching over to voice over IP. Until then, VoIP phones, which double as both a regular telephone and a radio with push-to-talk functionality will be used on a limited basis by selected mine staff.

“The other day, I was down at the 1700 Level and was able to take a call from a buyer,” said Bartsch. “It doesn’t matter where you are.”

Truck loading

Also planned for Nickel Rim South is an Ekahau asset tracking system, which will be used to automate truck loading on surface.

RFID tags on trucks pulling into loading bays will wirelessly identify the configuration of the vehicle. “It works like a car wash,” said Bartsch. “The truck pulls up to the loading bay and goes forward until the red light says stop. The driver gets a message on an LCD screen and pushes a button to acknowledge. A gate opens, dumps a certain amount of material and, depending on the truck configuration, the system signals the truck to move forward and dumps again. The driver never gets out of the truck.”

An operator in a control room decides whether to dump contact ore, footwall ore or waste. The system spits out a ticket identifying the load and the destination, and the driver drives off.

The system speeds up truck loading – a truck arrives every 12 minutes, says Bartsch – and keeps the driver in the cab and out of harm’s way.

Asset tracking technology can be used for personnel, mobile equipment and consumables, although Nickel Rim will focus initially on the latter two. Consumables such as rock bolts will be sent underground in standard bins equipped with RFID tags, allowing mine personnel to track their location.


Teleoperation of Nickel Rim South’s six rockbreakers will allow two operators on surface to operate the equipment as required without getting up from the control chairs supplied by Sudbury-based HLS-Hardline Solutions Inc.

“The benefit of running it from surface is that you don’t have to move people from rockbreaker to rockbreaker,” said Bartsch. “The more people underground, the more logistical issues you have. We’ll be able to see the condition of the grizzlys (on video monitors) and select the appropriate rockbreaker from the same chair.”

An electrical engineer, Bartsch was transferred to the Nickel Rim project team from Xstrata Process Support to champion new technology being introduced to the mine.

“Technology does add a certain amount of complexity,” he said. “ It might make the overall process simpler, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves. To get to the stage where it’s mainstream, you need a champion to push it.

“The big step with leaky feeder came when it became miner installed. It became accepted and went in with water, air and everything else. My vision is to have wireless infrastructure miner installed.”

Xstrata Nickel’s primary suppliers for the mine-wide fibre network at Nickel Rim South are Siemens Canada and its local distributor, Chess Controls.

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