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Portable broadband transforms mining operations

Mobile satellite communications technology lends itself to operating in areas where traditional fixed line or GSM telcoms is patchy, insecure or simply nonexistent. Simon Curran, Inmarsat UK, explains how advances in portable broadband communications have ushered in a raft of new capabilities for transforming mining operations in some of the remotest parts of the world.

As more of the world becomes industrialised, demand for mined products continues to drive the sector forward. Yet while mining companies face many diverse challenges, as the cost, complexity and difficulty of prospecting and extraction increase, the business priorities typically fall within the same three areas, namely productivity, safety and the environment.


As with many other extraction industries, every moment of downtime is lost time. And lost time equals lost money, which equals lost profit. So to ensure mining operations remain competitive, many organisations are seeking ways to exploit more resources, often in regions where the climate and terrain are hostile, or the political situation and communications infrastructure are unstable. Moreover, identifying and extracting new deposits can often be expensive so cost-effective, technical solutions that can deliver greater efficiencies and help drive costs down can help to realise significant gains in productivity.

For many years, satellite services have been an established part of the communications mix for mining companies operating in areas away from fixed-line and wireless networks. At permanent remote sites, VSAT (very small aperture terminal) satellite systems are one way of providing voice and data services. However, they have several widely recognised drawbacks. They are costly, require a trained technician to handle the complex installation, and are essentially static or permanent systems. Even so called ‘portable’ versions of the technology are relatively cumbersome and take time to configure. Although generally not an issue for a permanent installation such as an established mine, VSAT is unsuitable for workers who move from site to site and who need high-speed data as well as voice from any location.

Reliability can also be an issue. VSAT will generally work well in clear conditions but, like other high-frequency satellite systems, it can be disrupted by heavy rain or sand storms, for example.

Alternatives to VSAT come in the form of mobile satellite communications technology such as Inmarsat’s BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) system, which provides not only phone services but broadband data connectivity. These new generation systems are lightweight, rugged, highly portable and affordable. The equipment now fits easily into a backpack, weighs around a kilo or two, and can be up and running in a minute. BGAN systems also operate at a much lower frequency than VSAT, so are reliable in any weather condition or climate.

Mineral exploration teams covering long distances often need to stay in regular touch with their base camp, yet without portable communications a mobile team would either have to use small low bandwidth satellite systems or travel back to a site with a VSAT installation. In some cases they may need to drive to the nearest town with a broadband connection, which could be hundreds of kilometres away – if available at all.

Roughly the size of a laptop, BGAN is quick to set up, powerful enough to send large amounts of data and can operate in the harshest of environments. The big advantage, however, is their capability to provide both reliable and simultaneous telephone services and highspeed data communications from almost anywhere.

BGAN’s broadband service (up to 492 kbps over standard IP) can also create a ‘virtual’ communications centre, supporting many of the enterprise applications needed in the field, including voice, email, fax, web browsing and remote, secure access to VPN-enabled corporate networks. With a videoconferencing capability it can even bring head-office expertise right into site operations, and an optional guaranteed data streaming rate can be employed for critical high bandwidth applications.

Beyond telephone and data communications, the robust BGAN terminals can also provide remote surveillance with CCTV cameras to protect mines and other remote sites, as well as to monitor assets and personnel. At unmanned operations, the system can provide an intelligent gateway for data gathered by sensors and actuators, enabling near-instantaneous status reporting on generators, engines and other equipment in the field through industry-standard SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) applications.

Such remote monitoring is already widely available over satellite machine-to-machine telemetry services but BGAN’s capability and support for applications such as live colour video make it an alternative option for mining companies who want the power and flexibility of a broadband-based solution.

Although providing fast, high capacity connectivity, it is not always possible to rely on VSAT systems. Apart from the issue of weather interference, some regions simply do not permit the use of a permanent installation within their borders. And if a VSAT unit malfunctions, it may be necessary to suspend work for several days while a specialist maintenance team is called out to fix it. Compared with the cost of a day’s downtime, caused by failed communications, the cost of a BGAN as a back-up unit is negligible. And because companies only pay for the data they send, BGAN offers peace of mind without excessive running costs.

With health and safety always a priority, and insurance premiums reflecting this, a portable broadband system can help comply with the strict regulations by ensuring the mine or other remote site is always equipped with a guaranteed voice and data link. This means that medical help can be summoned immediately, if needed, and in urgent cases access telemedicine services over the internet. Beyond placing a phone call, BGAN’s high capacity data connectivity lets it transmit live video to allow any off-site doctors, who may be in another country, to quickly see and assess injuries.

Possessing a dependable front-line communications system helps companies comply with high standards of health and safety for their workers, and it shows insurers that every reasonable precaution is being taken (which may even result in lower premiums). In many cases, and across many industries, organisations are implementing welfare processes and safeguards to improve site safety and achieve zero fatalities.

The ease-of-use of portable systems such as BGAN also provides security benefits for field teams. It allows them to venture into high-risk territory more safely, expanding their exploration capabilities – safe in the knowledge that they have access to reliable communications the minute they need it.

At the end of any mine’s lifecycle, the decommissioning and the process of reclamation and restoration of the land begins. In this final stage, the decommissioning team can rely on a portable terminal again so that bulky and expensive equipment, such as VSAT, can be removed well ahead of full closure, helping maximise resources while keeping costs down. The portability and quick setup of systems such as BGAN will be especially valuable at this stage, as teams move frequently to operate from different parts of the site, or may need to travel to and from outlying areas.

When mines are eventually exhausted or become uneconomical, the system can also provide a reliable communications link for sensors and cameras to help with the important task of measuring and monitoring environmental data, while also helping enhance a company’s CSR standing and contribute to the wellbeing of the communities around the mines.