What protects the technology keeping mines safe?

Barminco employee Guy Gilbert remotely operating IGO’s Nova mine from Barminco’s Perth control room.

Sandvik and Barminco have proved at IGO’s Nova mine that remote operations are a reality in the not too distant future, but how can cyber security be ensured?

The Sandvik-Barminco trial has demonstrated that the Nova operation, 160 kilometres from Norseman in Western Australia, can be operated from Barminco’s office in Perth more than 750 kilometres away.

Barminco employee, Guy Gilbert has operated a Sandvik LH517 underground loader at the nickel-copper-cobalt mine, remotely bogging 400 tonnes in a little over two hours from a stope to a stockpile, from the company’s control rooms at Hazelmere in Perth.

Not only was the trial of the Barminco Remote Operating Centre (BROC) successful, but it also occurred via the internet rather than through a fibre-optic cable, the common method at these kinds of operations.

Gilbert’s feedback about the experience is resoundingly positive. He says when the telehut door is shut he forgets he is at Hazelmere and goes about his job like he is on-site at Nova.

The potential of remotely-operated mines offers an exciting opportunity to improve safety for workers, removing them from potentially dangerous situations, according to Gilbert.

Operating from a distance allows workers to make better use of less productive time in a more flexible workplace closer to cities like Perth rather than in remote areas.

It also allows workers to return home after shifts rather than working a fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) roster where they are away from families and friends.

While keeping workers safe is the number one priority, remote operations also need to be protected from a new wave of threats that come with the advanced technology being implemented, including cyber security.

Barminco general manager, technology and innovation Darren Kwok plays a major role in keeping the BROC safe from cyber threats.

“The integrity of our networks in general outside of BROC is certainly something that we put a lot of thought into,” Kwok tells Safe to Work at the Sandvik: Digitalisation in Mining conference.

“BROC operates in the confines of those networks already, so that’s the first level of security that we have. Like many global businesses, Barminco transacts over the internet now. 

“Level two is the machine to machine security, and we’ve built some great things with Sandvik to allow us to have a high level of confidence when it comes to the security of the physical act of manoeuvring the machine.”

Barminco operated a Sandvik LH517 underground loader at the Nova mine from 750 kilometres away in Perth.

 

Barminco’s team in Perth also continuously connects with the site via more conventional methods such as telephone, video and extended two-way radio, allowing further communication between them and with the operator.

Barminco chief executive officer Paul Muller says the remote operations were tested over a greater broadband network and the National Broadband Network (NBN) during the trial.

“The primary objective of the BROC proof of concept was to understand how the control of underground mining equipment would be affected by real world internet conditions,” Muller explains.

“All data was encrypted from end to end and standard safety systems were in place. If there was a network interruption for more than 250 milliseconds, the loader would stop and require a manual reset.”

Barminco has designed systems to resolve the challenges encountered in the first attempt, such as network disturbances, using information gathered during the trial.

“The Automine system is reliant on there not being any data losses through the network,” Muller says.

“This caused a number of interruptions throughout the trial, requiring the machine to be manually reset. We expect the new system designs will mitigate this issue in the future without compromising safety.”

With technology in mining now a necessity for both large and small mining operations, rather than just an optional add on as it has been in the past, designing the best possible defence systems is essential to safe operations.

As Kwok explains, this means finding more than just the best security solution for the present, but continuously developing securities to keep up with evolving technology.

“There’s no end-game in security, it’s constantly evolving,” Kwok says. “What we believe to be best practice today may be different tomorrow, so the whole concept of what we’re trying to build is one that progresses ahead of technologies evolution.”

“As part of the design of BROC, we are able to adopt new security practices as they are being developed.”

With Barminco and Sandvik running a more advanced trial integrating the new system designs in early 2020, the companies are hopeful to take the next step in cyber security and make BROC a permanent fixture at the Nova mine.

This article also appears in the March-April edition of Safe to Work.