What role does fiber optics play in the mining industry?


As technicians and professionals in this business know, the safe and reliable nature of fiber optics makes it the perfect communication solution for use in a wide variety of industries and mining in particular. The anti-spark, strong, fast, and reliable over long distances nature of fiber optic networks, solves many of the inherent problems of using non-fiber optic cables in hazardous situations. However, many in our industry still wonder specifically how is fiber optics used in mining?


HOW IS THE USE OF FIBER OPTICS A PERFECT SOLUTION FOR THE MINING INDUSTRY?


Thanks to lightning fast speeds, quick delivery, and reliable sensing capabilities, fiber optic technology has become an all-seeing and knowing element in underground mine operations. A fiber optic communication system installed in a mine will give real-time, accurate data on all the mining processes. Every second counts when equipment and personnel are below ground. An underground mine's communication system must be capable of transmitting an error, a signal, or an event immediately over long distances so that safe control of the environment can be maintained.



WHAT DOES REAL-TIME MEAN?


The definition of real-time is "the time in which a physical process under computer study or control occurs." In essence, real-time means immediately. When a signal is picked up, an event occurs, or a request is submitted it is delivered to the intended operator within milliseconds. If a dangerous situation deep in a mine cannot be handled immediately the worst might be realized.



WHAT IS MEANT BY LONG DISTANCES?


Historically, mining networks used multimode fiber in their communication networks. While multimode fiber can handle a large amount of bandwidth, the large core size of the multimode cable restricts the bandwidth-distance. Where huge networks are required, such as in a large-scale mining operation, multimode cables are of limited use. Additionally, multimode cable systems "have a significantly higher intrinsic light attenuation, or loss of optical power." Singlemode fiber optic systems offer lower levels of intrinsic attenuation with higher bandwidth distances, creating clear and reliable real-time communications over very long distances. In a mining operation, a very long distance can mean many miles.  



HOW DO FIBER OPTICS CREATE SAFETY IN MINING?


Mining is inherently dangerous, so having a responsive communication system is critical. Modern mines have been updated for increased volume output, are dug deeper into the earth, and have a greater focus on safety for all equipment and personnel. Safe and reliable fiber optic networks are the perfect solution for all types of enhanced communication needs in any mining operation.

Why is this true?
• The strands of glass in the fiber optic cable allow for high-speed data transmission with no associated hazards.
• One stray spark could cause a major explosion in a mine. With no electrical conductors in the fiber optic cables, the risk of sparks causing ignition of flammable gases is a non-issue.
• The glass in fiber optic cable eliminates cross-talk and other unwanted transfers of signals making them interference-proof. Clear communication is demanded in any hazardous situation.
• Fiber optic communication networks are designed to preserve the integrity of the system in extremely harsh conditions over extended periods of time. These systems provide safe and reliable vital links between the mine site and the control center.
•Fiber optic networks are immune to electromagnetic interference.  



CAN FIBER OPTIC EQUIPMENT MEET STRENGTH REQUIREMENTS?


All elements of a fiber optic network used in mines, from the cable to the connectors, are built to withstand the mechanical strength and survival ability standards required to operate in a harsh underground environment. Fiber optic cables are rated by The Mine Safety and Health Association for:
  • Impact and pull strength in installation and continued use.
  • Crush resistance from mine tunnel cave-in.
  • Extreme swing in temperature effectiveness.
  • Protection from moisture and chemical incursion.
  • Resistance to vibrations and other sound altering hazards.
  • Protection from sparks and flame spread.  



DO FIBER OPTICS MEET DEMANDS FOR INCREASED DATA CONVERGENCE?


A mining operation puts huge demands on its network. It must accommodate not only direct communication between personnel but also meet the data transmission demands of other communication features installed in the mine. The elements needed to create an effective control system and environmental monitoring network can only be created with fiber optic cables. In general, the minimum fiber optic system used in mining would include the following.

• A centralized control room that functions as the brains of the mining operation.
• Voice Over Internet Protocol phone and communication system above and below ground.
• A video surveillance system throughout the entire mining operation.
• Sensors to detect environmental hazards including fire and toxic gas buildup.
• A robust emergency communication system.
• Complex conveyor belt system controls.
• Immediate on/off capabilities operated through a remote system.
• Sensor monitoring and feedback.  



HOW DOES A MINE EMERGENCY COMMUNICATION SYSTEM WORK?


The fiber optic backbone system has dedicated fibers used only for emergency communications. These fibers are labeled for emergency only in the cross-communication boxes dispersed along the mine shafts. These dedicated fibers go unused until an emergency event occurs. If the emergency requires search teams to enter the mine, the team can use a jumper stored in the boxes to tie the fiber through to the next box. Then they can plug their talk sets to the connectors and communicate with the control room safely and reliably.

In daily operations and for safety and security purposes, fiber optic sensors can be added to the backbone and monitored from a central and often remote location. These proximity sensors are anti-spark and can be attached to safety gates, doors, cabinets, barriers and other access and egress points. In addition to monitoring normal traffic throughout the mine, they are also an early warning system for locating emergencies and shortening response time. Proximity sensors can also be installed and used as call signals identifying the location of an emergency in seconds. Using a latch in the control system, the location is locked on even if the fiber is disturbed after the initial event.  



WHAT IS MEANT BY COMPLEX CONVEYOR BELT CONTROL?


The purpose of creating a mine is to get the valued commodity out. A well-designed conveyor system that transports the goods to the surface is the lifeline of the mining operation. A mining conveyor belt system is very complex. It needs to run efficiently and smoothly with little downtime. Modern conveyor belt drive and motor systems are linked with fiber optic cables which offer a problem-free solution for operations.

Mining systems simultaneously perform these and other complex tasks during operations:

• The sequencing of start and stop functions of multiple connected motors.
• Controlling the smooth flow and separation of the mined product.
• Speed sensing for smooth operating control all along the conveyor.
• Correct angles for ascent and descent through the mine tunnels.
• Product weight distribution and load balancing to minimize power consumption.
• Fire and other safety hazard detection on the conveyor belt.

What is presented here is a basic understanding of why fiber optics are the perfect solution for use in any hazardous mining operation. Each mining operation is unique and requires expert analysis to create the ideal system. We know that fiber optics is always the reliable choice for most communication needs.

Have more questions? Call one of our fiber optic experts to explore the available options.