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Canadian gold mining with TETRA

Date: 11th August 2017
Topic: Monthly Features
Issue: Issue 39
Manufacturer: Hytera
Tags: Canada, Mining, PowerTrunk, Richard Martin

In the Canadian Low Arctic, miners rely on TETRA for their safety and operations. Richard Martin hears from Agnico Eagle and PowerTrunk to get the full story

Imagine working in extreme cold wearing heavy clothing. Frostbite is an ever-present danger, visibility is poor, and there are large machines, vehicles on the move around you and explosives are sometimes being used. This is daily life for workers in the north of Canada at the large mines that provide employment and wealth to these regions. The communication system must ensure their safety and effectiveness at all times and in all weather, both above and below ground.

TETRA continues to gain ground in North America, and its adoption in a number of mining operations in Canada testifies to its ability to compete with other technologies as well as meeting the demanding requirements of this industry in some of the most hostile locations on the planet. Representatives from Agnico Eagle Mines, PowerTrunk and consultancy BBA describe the selection and implementation of TETRA systems in two locations in the remote Nunavut region of Canada. David Torres, senior vice president, sales at PowerTrunk, states the growth of mining in Canada is an opportunity for TETRA, and PowerTrunk is pursuing new leads. As well as Nunavut, there are projects in Quebec, British Columbia, Northwest Territories and the USA. 

Two major mining companies in Canada have purchased TETRA communications systems for their operations. New Gold selected TETRA in 2013, with Damm supplying the network and Sepura supplying the terminals. The New Afton copper-gold mine is located approximately 350km northeast of Vancouver in the south-central interior of British Columbia. The property is only 10km from the regional hub of Kamloops and is easily accessible by paved road. New Gold also owns the Blackwater and Rainy River projects in Canada. 

Agnico Eagle
Agnico Eagle is a major gold-mining company celebrating 60 years of operation with eight mines located in Canada, Finland and Mexico. It employs 7,500 people and mined 1.7 million ounces of gold in 2016. Two of its locations in Canada are using TETRA for communications; Meliadine and Meadowbank/Amaruq are both located in the Nunavut region in the North, in very remote and environmentally hostile areas. In the case of the Meadowbank gold mine, the average yearly temperature is -15ºC. PowerTrunk has been awarded the contract to deploy its digital TETRA land mobile radio system in support of the mine’s operations. Agnico Eagle expects to be able to mine gold for decades from these locations.

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Agnico Eagle’s Meadowbank mine

The Meadowbank mine is Agnico Eagle’s first Low Arctic mine and its largest gold producer. The facilities depend on annual warm-weather sealift from Hudson Bay for transportation of the bulk of supplies and heavy equipment. A small airstrip and all-weather roads are also used for transporting employees who work on a fly-in, fly-out, 14-day on, 14-day off working schedule. 

The next phase in the Meadowbank area is the Amaruq project, which is connected to Meadowbank by a 60km road. This will be an open pit development with indicated resources of 2.1 million ounces of gold. Currently 100 employees are located at the project site during the construction phase. All permits are expected to be granted by Q2 2018, after which Amaruq transitions from being a project to a mine.

The Meliadine project is Agnico Eagle’s largest, with 3.4 million ounces of gold in proven and probable reserves. It is expected to produce 400,000 ounces of gold per year from 2019 to 2033 and perhaps longer. It lies about 400km south of the Arctic Circle. In the first phase, lasting four years, there will be underground workings; from year five onwards there will be both underground and surface working. In 2017 there will be 5,600 metres of underground development, fitting the ventilation system. There will be a fuel farm deployed at Rankin Inlet and on-site, and an enclosure that will house process and power buildings, and the second ramp portal. Employee numbers will increase from 200 to around 675 as production increases. All departments with a need for communications will use TETRA. 

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The Meliadine project

Selecting TETRA

Why was TETRA picked? The order to PowerTrunk follows the recommendation of BBA, an independent Canadian engineering consultancy, which was contracted by Agnico Eagle to conduct a feasibility study and to define the requirements of a new radio system for Meliadine.

Torres describes the early stages of the procurement. After a presentation on the benefits of TETRA, a small but complete system was first installed at the Meadowbank mine for evaluation. This was later moved to Meliadine as the basis for the full system there. 

Gilles Leonard, BBA’s telecom, IT and networking systems architecture expert, picks up the story. “As part of the feasibility study for the project, BBA recommended PowerTrunk’s TETRA technology because its multiple functionalities meet Agnico Eagle’s needs. Due to the timing of the projects, this recommendation was applied to Meadowbank first.” He adds that the features that stood out were the ability to use TETRA radios like a phone, full-duplex voice quality and over-the-air programming. Being freed from the need to specify all of the configuration and talk groups before the radios are issued enables the operator to conveniently make regular updates as teams and roles change. TETRA’s status as an open standard was also a positive factor, enabling separate procurement of infrastructure and terminals. BBA has used other digital systems that require radios to be returned for reprogramming; with TETRA this is a dynamic process, possible over the air.

Leonard also talks about the battery life; the portable radios easily meet a shift duration of 12 hours – mine workers typically work from 6am to 6pm. 

Philip Quessy, general IT supervisor at Agnico Eagle, says: “Having a TETRA system at Meadowbank will greatly improve the security of our workers as well as simplify the maintenance and management of the radio system. PowerTrunk have the expertise and efficient team to manage this kind of project, and their products are designed to meet the challenges of our harsh Arctic environment.” 

With 17 years’ experience in the mining industry, Quessy is well positioned to talk about the requirements for communications in mining. He chose TETRA because it meets the demanding safety requirements for mining operation as well as its suitability for the demanding dust and severe low-temperature environment, as low as -60°C in some circumstances. Current analogue communications are limited in capacity and features, and the increasing numbers of users and the group features were a consideration in the selection. Overall, TETRA offers a range of security and safety features that apply to the mining industry. Safety is a major concern for Agnico Eagle – the emergency button and group facilities in TETRA were key factors in deciding on its use. Although there are low-frequency emergency radio solutions available, these have not been used as they were considered to be too complex.  

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Operation
In the severe conditions of a mine, safety is paramount. Large vehicles are moving around; there are industrial-scale machines. Add to that the harsh winter conditions, and both workers and their equipment must endure some of the most extreme environments in the world. Strict procedures are applied – employees must work in pairs when outside and must not exceed 10 minutes at a time. Employees check each other’s clothing to prevent third-degree burns. Frostbite can occur in minutes at these temperatures.

Movements in and out of the mine with heavy equipment are only possible in one direction at a time; voice communication ensures that vehicle drivers know the locations of each other to avoid congestion and to report back to the control room. Personnel location is a key safety factor – everyone has to know where other workers are located. Special teams such as fire or security also use the radios and have their own talk groups. If for any reason communications are interrupted, the manager may decide to suspend working until they are resumed. The managers can make use of broadcast text messaging over TETRA SMS to give blast warnings and other operational updates. The emergency button is another important safety feature for workers in the mine. All workers in risk areas are provided with a radio – about half of these are vehicle radios for drivers; other workers have portables. Typically, there are 225 vehicle radios for each mine and 150-200 portables. Radios are rated at high IP specifications, some at IP67 and others at IP64.

All mine vehicles are using the TETRA mobile radios and GPS heads, and the location information is streamed to the control centre and displayed on a map. The application for this has been developed in-house, which was made easier as TETRA uses NMEA (National Maritime Electronics Association) GPS data. In the future, a more comprehensive dispatch system may be added.

Quessy specified the use of remote speaker microphones (RSMs) – users are frequently dressed in warm clothing with the radio inside for protection. The RSM is on the outside and provides all the audio features and controls. Workers wear hard hats and, in some cases, earmuffs, but as there is no need for special headsets, the RSM works well. Quessy is satisfied with the battery life on the portables, which exceeds the duration of the shifts even at very low temperatures such as -40°C. 

No intrinsically safe radios are used. While TETRA ATEX radios are available, the cost is high and there is no need for them. BBA’s Leonard says there is a need for these radios in some mines where there can be off-gassing in tunnels. He also points out that BBA’s expertise includes recommending safe handling practices for explosives. He gives an example in which a non-TETRA radio in a holster was accidentally put into emergency call mode when the operator leaned over in a particular direction, and transmitted at high power; this triggered a detonator in the hand of a worker nearby who suffered severe burns as a result. Generally, TETRA works at a maximum of 1.8W, but the standard does permit higher levels and so Leonard’s recommendation is to limit power to 1W before issue to users working near explosives. 

The PowerTrunk TETRA system at Meadowbank will consist of three site base stations operating in the UHF frequency band and include PowerTrunk STP9040, STP9240 and SRG3900 portable and mobile radios, which will be used to support the open pit mine operations and related logistical activities. The infrastructure deployment at the Meliadine mine has expanded to seven carriers, five site base stations and one mast-mounted unit. Several of the base stations can be moved to suit the evolution of the mine. There is a need to get coverage in difficult-to-reach areas of the mine such as the pits, and portable units work well for this. Underground coverage is provided by a TETRA base station at the entrance and then leaky feeders into the tunnels. There are currently two miles of underground workings to a depth of 350 metres. There is a hot standby core for resilience.

At one stage a satellite link was provided to a TETRA system based at the Agnico Eagle company headquarters in Val-d’Or, Quebec. This connected users to the core infrastructure and workers at the mine. HQ could communicate with mine workers and some jobs could be relocated back to the South. Long-range links such as this introduce latency, but the TETRA system worked effectively.

Quessy tells us that developing TETRA SDS (Short Data Service) Applications on TETRA was straightforward. Blast notifications are sent to alert employees to blast times and changes of schedule as well as who authorised the blast. These can be sent to all groups. This system is built into the back-end network so that whenever there is an update programmed, it will automatically be sent as a text to all radios. TETRA is used to link machines and instrumentation in the mine to monitor equipment status and mine temperatures. The ventilation system can be controlled remotely depending on how many people are working in each area. Alarms are also remotely monitored using TETRA and SCADA, as is the stench gas alert system. This can be activated manually by a worker opening a canister of gas into the ventilation system or triggered from the control room on the surface. An application has now been implemented whereby workers in the mine can trigger a stench gas release from their TETRA radio by entering a PIN and confirming location and time. The communications systems including telephony and satellite links are also monitored using SCADA and TETRA.

Asked if there were issues during the introduction of the TETRA system, Quessy talks about the transition from analogue to digital radios. To begin with, a gateway has to link TETRA to older analogue radios. Users must become familiar with communications that work in a different way, including the use of groups. However, Quessy says users have come to like TETRA’s voice quality and noise suppression and have made the transition. The audio power is very good – important in the noisy environment of mining. This is an experience to be passed on to new operators – that new users will need time and guidance when moving from analogue to TETRA.

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Hugues Begin, telecommunications specialist at Agnico Eagle, in the Meliadine camp’s communications equipment room

And in conclusion…
Has the decision to use TETRA in Nunavut worked out? Quessy refers to his experience with other communications technologies and is very positive. “TETRA supplies exactly what we needed,” he says – and the end-users are now satisfied. TETRA is an open standard, important when it comes to purchasing systems and radios as well as applications. Quessy notes that the relatively small numbers of radios required means that ordering ahead is necessary to get them to the mines when needed. 

It is difficult to conceive of a more demanding test for TETRA (especially for the portable radios) than these mines and projects in Canada. It has stood up well and won over the employees and managers, and we can expect to see further new contracts being awarded as mining develops in the North of Canada and Alaska.


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