BY LEN GILLIS
With the Kidd Mine in Timmins being the deepest base metal mine in the world, Kidd Operations has made improved communications one of its key priorities.
That was brought forward by operations engineer Patrick Desmarais during the recent Beyond Digital Transformation mining conference held in Sudbury.
He outlined how the company had installed a fibre optic network through the mine. That resulted in a complete underground WiFi system and in the past year it was followed up by giving every last worker an iPhone for instant communication, from level to level and from surface to the bottom of the mine.
Kidd is a blasthole mine that is 9,889 feet deep, operating on 32 active levels and is mining at the rate of 1.9 million tonnes per year.
“When you’re mining at that depth communications gets a lot harder. It’s something we see in all underground mines. We’re pretty deep down there and we want to keep communication up,” Desmarais told the audience.
Desmarais revealed the decision to install a fibre optic network in the mine was made back in the 2000s.
“We proactively put in our fibre backbone in 2006 when we had our D-Mine project.
“We were sinking four-shaft when we put our fibre backbone in. That put fibre into the shaft and into our refuge stations,” he explained.
And then in 2012 he said the fibre op net was expanded to all levels in the mine. Desmarais said this eventually supported the LHD (scooptram) automation project and the VOD (ventilation on demand) project.
“VOD is a big project that a lot of mines have but obviously for us it had really big energy benefits on the vent side. So that paid for all that fibre work as well,” he said.
Other benefits of the fibre op system include personnel tracking through RFID in the cap lamps and using RFID to track mobile equipment, he added.
Desmarais said despite all the options that were presented by fibre op, the company went through a prioritization process and determined that worker communication s was essential.
“So the big driver for us when looking at expanding our network was we wanted to improve underground communications,” he told the conference.
“We all know the issues of leaky-feeder (an underground radio comm system) so if we could get communications with text, phone calls, pictures, video that would be awesome.”
Desmarais said the mine also wanted to reduce the amount of paperwork especially when dealing with operational prints to ensure they were current and updated.
“When you’re dealing with driving layouts, blast letters, drill books you have revisions all the time,” he said, adding that with paper it would be too easy for a worker to end up with an older copy that could lead to doing the wrong work, or unsafe work.
The other prerequisite he said was coming up with a system that was easy to implement and did not require an excessive amount of training.
The solution was the installation of the Northern Light Edge Box, which converts fibre energy to Power Over Ethernet.
“So we installed this on 28 different levels, and then it’s really simple. All it is, is six different plug-ins and then it’s plug-and-play from there. You run 90-metre cables. At the end of the 90-metres you have an extender.”
Desmarais said the cable installation work was being done by the blasting crews, which he said were able to do the work when they weren’t assigned to bulk loading powder.
He said the blasting crews were “not considered tech gurus by any means” but added they were quick to pick up on the technical aspects of the work which he said was a big benefit for Kidd Mine.
He said that left the mine with the decision on what sort of a communications device would be best.
“We looked for magic wands. There were none available on the market. So we figured we would go with cell phones,” said Desmarais.
He said the company first opted for the cheapest and most rugged phones on the market but eventually moved up to choose a refurbished iPhone-6 with an Otterbox Defender case.
It was decided each miner, each worker would get their own phone along with a charger installed in their personal locker. He said supervisors were given cell phones along with a hybrid tablet-computer. He said this would allow then instant connectivity with the miners along with being able to do their computer paperwork once they were back on surface.
Desmarais said each phone had the Microsoft Teams program installed to allow every worker, or group of workers, to stay in touch. He said supervisors can be in touch with a specific worker, or all the workers assigned to a specific level underground.
The system also allows each worker to see pictures and layouts of all the prints relevant to the work being done that day. Desmarais added that if there is a problem with a broken down piece of equipment, the miner can take a picture or a video and send it along to the maintenance crew which will know what tools or parts to bring out to do the repair work.
Desmarais compared it to the problems that occurred with older comm systems, such as leaky feeder.
“We’ve all been there when you’re trying to get ahold of somebody and you can’t -- it gets really frustrating."
He said the cell phone system has been in place at Kidd Mine for roughly a year. said it has been a significant time saver, especially for anyone who works alone underground and must be checked on every two hours. He also mentioned the maintenance benefit of not having a mechanic driving back and forth several times to the shop to get tools and parts when a mobile machine breaks down.
For blasting on a level, he said it is easier to determine that all workers have been safely removed from that level so that blasting can proceed safely.
“The list can go on and on,” said Desmarais. He said new procedures are being developed on a regular basis and the wifi phone system definitely has benefits.
From the point of view of a supervisor, he said the system can also find a piece of mobile equipment during a shift change.
“Now we can check in real time where the equipment is. So if your supervisor lines you up with equipment and it is not where it is supposed to be, you’re not in desperation mode driving from level to level to level trying to find it, and burning up half of your shift.”
He said checking the phone will show where the missing scooptram is actually located. Desmarais said there are several other apps (applications) being developed all with an eye to making things work better and more safely.
Desmarais said other mine managers who want to upgrade their comms have several options to choose from for such things as network, whether to go with wifi or LTE. He said it’s the same in determining whether to choose iPhones or Android devices, or choose tablets.
As for apps, he said, mines will also have to determine which programs are the best for their operations in terms of providing the best value.