Features

Connecting the dots

Vocus

To enable the mining industry’s transition to cloud-based technology, Vocus Group is developing fibre network cables and satellite technology to improve connections in remote areas.

Australia is home to hundreds of mining leases that are being mined and explored across northern and Western Australia.

But border closures and fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) travel bans due to COVID-19 restrictions have impacted the ability of mining companies to source skilled workers.

This is shifting many companies further towards automated and virtual means of conducting mining and exploration activities.

However, these technologies require a fast and low-latency network connection, which is costly and often unavailable in remote mining areas.

Vocus is developing multiple solutions to get rural mining areas up to speed through capable fibre network connections and satellite internet technology.

“Smaller mining companies are going to want to be highly leveraged around their cloud infrastructure,” Vocus national general manager government and special projects Michael Ackland tells Australian Resources & Investment.

“Rather than smaller miners buying their own servers, they adopt ‘pay as you use’ servers, which are currently based on Australia’s east coast.”

Vocus’ Darwin-Jakarta-Singapore Cable will allow mining companies to hook up their cloud infrastructure to Singapore rather than Melbourne or Sydney, which will improve both latency and cost.

It will be the first international cable connection into Darwin and amps up the connectivity of much of northern Australia through stronger fibre infrastructure.

Vocus is also developing Project Horizon, which will deliver fibre infrastructure from Geraldton to Port Hedland, and then on to Singapore via the Darwin-Jakarta-Singapore Cable.

The company expects these projects to strengthen the internet connection in remote regions of Western Australia significantly.

To complement its fibre services, Vocus is investing in LEO (low earth orbit) satellite-based telecommunications.

In 2021, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX launched its Starlink satellite internet in a beta phase to Australian customers, which has delivered higher download and upload speeds that outclass fixed wireless connections.

The technology was also hailed as a breakthrough for delivering internet to areas without fixed-line connections, a situation northern Australia has struggled with.

Vocus’ LEO satellites will complement its fibre infrastructure.

Rather than relying on fixed cables, LEO technology will provide an internet connection anywhere where the sky is visible. For mining companies, there is a strong value incentive to such a technology.

According to Ackland, mine sites have been deploying edge computing systems to enable more remote operational capabilities.

Edge computing is conducted on site to deliver enough processing power to run remote operations across a mine operation.

The need for edge computing has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic as more operations require remote access.

However, this can be costly, with Vocus’ “as a service” approach for satellite internet allowing mining companies to save costs and rely on the cloud rather than expensive edge technologies.

“We’ve seen a lot of emergency deployments of edge computing where people are putting server racks inside shipping containers and pumping energy into them to keep them cool,” Ackland says.

“From a mining perspective, you’ve got to have reliable low latency high-speed secure connectivity.

“Those are the keys to be able to move things away from the edge in terms of the amount of personnel you need to have in potentially high-risk situations – or indeed with COVID – moving people in and out has become more difficult, and the more it can be done remotely the more we can keep production running.”

Vocus’ vision for LEO satellites is for them to complement fibre infrastructure through satellite ground stations.

The company is a founding partner and shareholder in Australian-based and run Quasar Satellite Technologies, which will deliver the “ground stations as a service” offering.

“The fibre network that we’re deploying in WA is going to allow for the creation of satellite earth stations,” Ackland says.

“Those satellite earth stations are going to need to be within 500 kilometres of the point you’re trying to get communications.”

Ackland says the satellite ground stations need to be connected to fibre. For satellite providers, the industry-first Quasar phased array antenna will allow multiple satellite companies to leverage the same ground station infrastructure.

By bringing Quasar’s technology together with Vocus’ fibre infrastructure projects, the company is preparing to provide mining companies with a reliable, stable and low-bandwidth connection. This will cut costs and deliver stable internet by preventing the need for bespoke ground infrastructure.

“What we’re seeing with LEO technology is improved connection to satellite services,” Ackland continues.

“For mining companies, you could effectively pull this out of your truck, power it up and have the ability to feed data or have it analysed live through your connection to cloud.”

The next wave of mining operations will adopt more smart technology, including autonomous haulage and real-time analysis.

Autonomous equipment relies on a strong internet connection to maintain full control over driverless vehicles at a mine site.

Even mineral explorers conducting drilling campaigns can benefit from stronger telecommunications capabilities.

Drilling campaigns usually rely on manually putting data on a hard drive for future analysis. But with hard border closures remaining an ongoing issue, LEO technology enables explorers to instead process drilling results in real time.

The mining companies of the future also plan to take advantage of artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) technologies, which are becoming essential to more efficient maintenance practices along with off-site processing of drilling information.

“If you were conducting a drilling campaign with LEO technology you could have live feeds going back to data processing,” Ackland says.

“This allows for a far more real-time approach for where it is best to drill; that interactivity is going to lead to more accurate finds and more accurate campaigns.

“AI has the ability to compute vast amounts of information, such as analysing drilling data while you’re still out in the field, so you can imagine the benefits of doing that while mobilised, such as an improvement in the productivity of searching resources.”

Vocus is improving connectivity by installing fibre networks.

Vocus is receiving strong backing from the mining industry for the installation of fibre networks and LEO technology.

Companies are aware that this infrastructure will increase their ability to unlock more productivity and efficiency in some of Australia’s most significant mining regions.

Vocus’ network operations centres also feature a high level of security to ensure its services are safe, private and reliable.

“The bottom line here is that a lot of this operational technology that is being deployed, until now, has been almost exclusive to the bigger end of town,” Ackland says.

“A combination of LEO and fibre network competition is going to change the game for these junior miners.

“Things are about to get a lot cheaper in terms of their ability to access and leverage this technology and it is quite an exciting time in telecommunications development for mining sector.”

As the world evolves alongside technology, Vocus is working hard to to connect remote areas of Australia to future opportunities through internet services that drive down costs and time.

This article appeared in the October issue of Australian Resources & Investment.

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