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Underground WiFi ‘a game-changer’ for Anglo American

Anglo American has invested R10 million in the roll out of underground WiFi initiatives, aimed at improving productivity and safety for hundreds of miners at its coal mining operations in Mpumalanga.

Goedehoop Colliery Mines, in Mpumalanga, recently became the coal division’s second operation to introduce safe wireless communication infrastructure and smartphones at its four million tonne per annum Simunye Shaft.

Zibulo Colliery was the first Anglo American Coal South African mine to introduce the technology in 2016.

According to the mining giant, the introduction of underground WiFi has given it a competitive-edge, through enabling two-way communications between miners working underground and staff on the surface, improved tracking of equipment and miners, and Internet of things (IOT) connections.

“The introduction of underground WiFi is a game-changer,” says Anglo American technician superintendent Edgar Simfukwe.

“It allows our miners to communicate more easily, thereby making mines more productive. The main benefit is that breakdowns can be reported and resolved faster; in some cases, by contacting equipment manufacturers on the spot.

“We’re working in an environment where safety and productivity are paramount. Employees can send photographs and video clips to aid troubleshooting. They’re also able to arrange for the immediate dispatch of spare parts, get work authorisations, and flag faults before they become major issues.”

Anglo American has also introduced a series of mobile apps that optimise productivity, speed up decision-making and give employees the information they need, when and where they need it.

“The fixed underground telephones previously in use were unreliable and reaching miners would often require a long walk. Employees would frequently need to return to the surface to get a message to a colleague, report a problem or access production-critical information,” says business improvement manager Zanne-Mari Meyer.

“Smartphones have changed all this. They enable instant communication from underground to the surface, from the surface underground and from one underground location to the other, but at their core they are tools that can be used for so much more.”

Apart from resolving communication challenges, the WiFi network also tracks key equipment such as load haul dumps, tractors and buses through communication tags, and allows for people to be located in the event of an emergency.

IOT helps connect computing machines, embedded devices, equipment, appliances and sensors, notes Anglo American.

“Up to 750 people work in an area of around 20 square kilometres, so it’s important that we know where each of them are if an underground emergency occurs. Should an evacuation occur, we are able to determine from the control room whether anyone has been left behind underground, exactly who they are and their last known location,” Simfukwe points out.

Installing WiFi underground is significantly more difficult than above ground. There are no cellphone towers underground, and signals are weakened and distorted by uneven surfaces, earthen walls and other obstacles in tunnels of different sizes, he adds.

Technological innovation is propelling the mining industry into the future, through a wide range of technologies implemented to shake things up in the industry, including virtual reality headsets, spatial data visualisation, and underground excavators, drones and three-dimensional technologies which create a life-like impression of whatever is being viewed, with depth perception.

In 2017, Anglo American announced it had made a three-year, R500 million investment in technology, including using drones for aerial surveys and remote-controlled drills.

A sum of R6 million was allocated to Kumba Iron Ore, an Anglo American subsidiary, which is now self-operating the drones for efficient collection and processing of data, after being granted a licence last year.