Maestro Digital Mine’s founders, David Ballantyne, vice-president of development and technology and Michael Gribbons, vice-president of sales and marketing, with the first Plexus device. CREDIT: MAESTRO DIGITAL MINE
The nascent digital revolution in mining presents a special challenge for underground mines.
Not only do they have questions about which technologies to invest in and how to best make use of the burgeoning amount of data collected by their machinery, but they also have a big technical hurdle to contend with.
Most underground mines have a reliable communication network from level to level in the form of fiber optic cable that reaches down to an electrical sub-station on each level.
But fiber optic isn’t well suited to the “last mile” – the area between the sub-station and the active mining face, which is where miners really need real-time data and connectivity to make use of digital technologies such as remote drilling, and autonomous hauling.
“Most of the mines now have fiber right to each level, but they just can’t take it out towards the face affordably, reliably and quick enough to support operations,” says Michael Gibbons, vice-president of sales and marketing at Sudbury, Ont.-based Maestro Digital Mine.
A full fiber optic based system is expensive and the cable can be easily damaged by either blast concussion or mobile equipment.
The initial installation or repair requires a highly trained specialist.
To get around this hurdle, Maestro has designed and manufactured a solution in its Plexus PowerNet – a network that uses standard copper coaxial cable to transmit both power and gigabit data. Copper is not only less expensive than fiber optic and easier to install and repair, it’s also more resistant to the blasting environment, Gribbons says.
The challenge in getting data back and forth from the mine face has always been the media or the “highway” that data can travel on.
“What we’ve developed is a highway that is quicker to install, less expensive and does not require highly skilled labour – that’s really the whole crux of it. It can be fully installed by any electrician,”
The Plexus PowerNet can provide power and data from a substation to an end point that is 1-2 km away, a distance that Gribbons says is adequate in almost all the applications Maestro has seen so far.
At press time in July, Maestro’s Plexus PowerNet was being tested at Barrick Gold’s Cortez mine in Nevada – the flagship mine for the gold major’s digital reinvention, announced last September. The Plexus PowerNet is also being tested with Hard- Line’s autonomous equipment at the NORCAT test mine in Sudbury. Both tests are expected to be complete by the end of August.
So far, the system has performed well in testing, and Maestro is further enhancing both software and hardware based on comments and suggestions from the top ten global mining companies.
Maestro already has orders from several large mining companies, and by the end of the year, Gribbons expects that up to a dozen companies will have installed the technology on one or two levels to try it out.
Underground mining communication networks and companies have been proliferating to help the mining industry make use of new technologies. However, Maestro isn’t competing with the suppliers of fiber optic or wireless infrastructure.
The company doesn’t manufacturer wireless devices – just the infrastructure that wireless access points (WAPs) could be plugged into for power and data.
“This would be used in conjunction with wireless access points, so our system is the media that anything can be plugged into, whether it’s an IP camera, Cisco WAPs, VoIP phone, PLC etc.,” Gribbons says. “Our device will provide power to the WAP and any Power over Ethernet (PoE) data connection point. Everybody else would have to bring fiber and power to it.”
The system is totally “agnostic,” meaning it works with any company’s hardware.
While the Plexus is about the half the cost of fiber optic system, (and installation is about 70% less because specialists or expensive connectors are not required), the system is not meant to replace fiber altogether.
“Fiber has its application in an underground mine – there’s areas where it makes sense to deploy fiber so the solution really is from the sub-station out – that’s what we designed it for,” Gribbons says.
The network can also be installed outwards from either a level network switch or directly from the fiber patch panel.
The heart of the network are the Plexus PowerNet nodes, each of which has four PoE+ ports and provides power the wireless access points or end point devices. The nodes also have a USB port that can act as a serial port or allow an easy exchange of the node configuration files. Simple port diagnostics on the devices make it easy to see if power and data are flowing.
The number of nodes required depends on the application.
“If the company wants to do remote operated rock breaking or drilling, they would only require a node at the rock breaker or drill and one at the starting point or network switch location,”
“However, if the client is attempting to do autonomous operation of haulage trucks, they would need more. Each node would provide power to three WAPs and a mesh network would allow the autonomous vehicle to operate.”
About 300-500 WAPs would be required in an advanced mine, meaning 100 to 150 nodes would be needed to power them.
Formerly known as Maestro Mine Ventilation, the company rebranded itself in May, when it announced the launch of Plexus PowerNet.
The new name better reflects the company’s high-tech offerings, Gribbons says: “We’re in the digital business and have been since Day One.”
Founded by Gribbons and David Ballantyne, Maestro’s vice-president of development and technology, in late 2011, Maestro already has around 80 clients in more than a dozen countries using its other inventions, such as the Vigilante AQS Air Quality Station.
Engineers by training, Gribbons and Ballantyne only put the idea for the Plexus PowerNet on paper late last fall, after seeing the need for such a product among their clients.
“We have progressed quickly, but everything that we’ve done so far has been very fast!” Gribbons says.