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Cutting the cord

The Cortez underground may be below surface, but its Wi-Fi connectivity initiative puts it at the precipice of Barrick’s digital reinvention

The Cortez mine in northern Nevada is the tip of the spear for Barrick’s digital reinvention, and it all starts with Wi-Fi connectivity underground. Ethan Hull, Barrick’s Manager of Information Technology for North America, knows this undertaking is no easy feat and relishes the challenge.

“Below ground, our network is constantly expanding because new work areas are being constantly created so we have to follow them,” he says. “We’ve partnered with Cisco to standardize equipment and create a network that is robust yet simple enough to install so that we do not require specialized equipment or specialists to install it.”

The benefits

Building an underground Wi-Fi network will allow the company to significantly expand the amount of data that can be collected and analyzed from underground operations. For example, operators will be able to track data such as equipment and personnel locations in real time, the number of bucket scoops per haul truck and where ore is going—all through Wi-Fi.

Safety will also be bolstered, as Wi-Fi will facilitate the use of tele-remote and autonomous technology that will allow miners to operate equipment from the surface via remote control. This will enhance safety because it will significantly reduce the amount of time miners spend underground, reducing their exposure to mining-related risk. The use of these technologies will also minimize interruptions in the mining cycle because mine personnel won’t have to be cleared from the underground in order to blast. Wi-Fi will also allow the installation of technology that empowers shift supervisors to more efficiently deploy personnel and equipment at the beginning of a shift. This will reduce shift changeover and start-up times.

Related: Cisco Wireless and Mobility Solutions | Barrick Gold and Cisco Partner for the Digital Reinvention of Mining

“Currently, drill operators physically mark drill-hole positions underground using paint and then they proceed to drill the pattern,” says Theo Kandawasvika, Cortez’s Technical Services Superintendent and a member of the Wi-Fi project team. “With digitization, the need for paint marks is eliminated because smart drilling technology automatically displays the drill pattern on the operators’ tablets, which enhances productivity, converting ‘painting’ time into effective drill time.”

Real-time maintenance

In terms of maintenance, the goal is to provide on-demand service in real time. If a piece of equipment breaks down, communication with a subject expert or vendor located on surface, or even off site, via a Wi-Fi-enabled tablet, will be possible. The expert will be able to see the equipment, help identify the issue and deliver a solution. If required, a part could be ordered directly through the mine’s Oracle database system from the tablet that the underground technician is using. The work order would be processed automatically, and the service disruption would be kept to a minimum. While full integration of back office systems is the longer-term goal, underground operators are already able to communicate with and receive support from subject experts in Elko, Nevada, 100 miles away from the mine, using real-time video chat—or anywhere else in the world, for that matter.

"Wi-Fi is like oxygen for our business,” says Gordon Chiu, Barrick’s Vice President of Information Technology. “Wherever there are people breathing on the mine site, we want to have Wi-Fi."

To date, the coverage area underground sits at 85 percent of the mine’s 13.5-mile tunnel system. Four years ago, Cortez made a push to install Wi-Fi underground to monitor equipment, which is why the mine was chosen as Barrick’s flagship digital reinvention site—part of the necessary infrastructure was already in place. The current project involves installing Wi-Fi access points throughout the underground and developing innovative ways to maintain fast data transmission speeds at the rock face where drilling, loading and blasting work takes place.

The challenge

To enable Wi-Fi underground, instrumentation and communication technicians have threaded network cables 1,200 feet below the earth’s surface. These cables connect to one of six main distribution frames that service different levels of the underground. These frames collect data from different equipment underground such as pumps and air-quality stations. Internet connectivity is delivered via the access points, which are made by Cisco. The access points transmit Wi-Fi signals approximately 330 feet, from one point to the next, like a “daisy chain,” says Rob Kufeld, Cortez’s Underground Instrumentation and Communication Supervisor.

“Every time we install an access point that is one step further from the distribution frames without using Fiber or Cat5e wiring between them, we cut our data throughput by 50 percent,” he says. “By the time we get four access points deep, we go from data transmission speeds of 400megabits per second to 30megabits per second.”

To resolve this issue, copper wiring was used to buttress data transmission speeds between access points when the network was first rolled out. However, it is more costly and difficult to install than Fiber or Cat5e wiring, a type of Ethernet cable.

Another challenge is to maintain data transmission speeds with equipment operating on the fringes of the network. Kufeld, Hull and their teams introduced a combination of fiber optic cables and battery solutions to resolve the problem. The fiber optic cables will maintain data transmission speeds and also power access points. Specialized batteries that can last up to seven days will power portable access points installed on the equipment itself. This will allow equipment to transmit data right from the rock face while maintaining data throughput speeds.

"Realistically, until we have real-time data, we can’t make accurate and fast decisions about moving our people or equipment to where they’re needed, so this is going to speed up those processes and enable the business to work more efficiently,” Hull says. “That’s essentially what Wi-Fi is: enabling the business to analyze and direct all of those things instantly."

This article originally appeared in Barrick Beyond Borders.

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