How to build the right network infrastructure underground

In the digital-focussed world, transmitting data, being able to speak to others in real-time via phone or messaging, and access to high-speed Wi-Fi are a given.

This same ideology we have on the surface also applies underground. Safety and productivity depend on it.

But as many in the industry will know, the underground mine is a challenging and unique environment, and without the right network infrastructure in place, reliable connection to the surface is difficult.

“Personal tech, like smart phones and home Wi-Fi, have led us to expect ease and freedom with connectivity because on the surface we are GPS enabled,” MST Global chief executive Haydn Roberts said.

“Underground, that is just not possible, and we need to overcome this problem by building the right network infrastructure for your needs.”

At MST Global, we’ve been enhancing underground connectivity for over 30 years. Our award-winning network infrastructure solution the AXON suite has recently undergone some upgrades to enhance functionality and connectivity for users.

In this article, we’ll take you through our AXON product family, recent advancements, and the benefits of bringing this into your digital mine to build the right network infrastructure for your underground needs.

Before we dive in. Our AXON suite is a modular, multifunctional platform designed to support existing and future wireless communication, tracking and automation technologies through high-bandwidth fibre.

Find out more about the entire suite here.

AXON mesh & AXON mesh+

We’ll start at the end, with our newly rebranded AXON mesh and AXON mesh+, which is a highly acclaimed portable device that is a favourite among underground miners globally.  In a sense it is at the end of our network platform, providing the “last mile” connectivity in the dynamic mining face areas.

AXON mesh is essentially a pick-up and go “briefcase” sized piece of technology that is perfect for when cabling and wiring isn’t an option.

It’s designed for temporary projects when your team is wanting to explore a new area underground or a high-risk area of a mine, and deployed to maintain connection to the surface without the costly overheads or timely exercise of installing cabling.

In 2021, this piece of technology underwent an upgrade, with the launch of AXON mesh+ with BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) connectivity.

MST Global Senior Product Specialist Dirk Eisner, who has played a key role in this technology rollout, said the introduction of BLE was a game-changer for underground mines and the tunnelling industry.

“The main reason for this is Bluetooth is a cost-effective solution,” Dirk Eisner said.

“Particularly if you start tracking assets, it becomes expensive to track everything with Wi-Fi tags. Using Bluetooth tags can be very effective and allow you to deploy these devices in areas that wouldn’t have previously been very difficult to do so.”

“In face areas where you constantly have blasting scenarios, you can’t bring your devices or equipment forward into these production areas where it’s the beating heart of the mine, but these are the locations that you really want to track your equipment and your people.

“Prior to AXON mesh, you couldn’t easily get in there because you would have to run it in and pull it back out when you blast and it was just too hard, people wouldn’t do it.

“Having something you can grab and walk forward and drop one down, and drop another one down if you need to extend it further, makes it super flexible. It’s a really exciting addition.”

Benefits of the AXON mesh include: it’s lightweight, small, portable; simple to deploy; fills connectivity and communication gaps between the mining face and fixed infrastructure; enables real time data collection from hard-to-reach locations.

AXON air & AXON air+

Next up is MST’s AXON air; a versatile Wi-Fi access point designed with power and flexibility in mind.

This year, BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) beaconing and receiving BLE broadcasts have also been added to the AXON air to create the AXON air+.

Like the AXON air, the AXON air+ can be daisy-chained via its PoE+ port and the combination of radio and antennas in one package, which makes installation simple and inexpensive.

AXON air+ features antenna diversity and integrated support for geolocation. Its advanced feature set enables reliable, high-bandwidth, wireless data and voice coverage throughout the mine or tunnel.

The AXON air+ broadcasts as a BLE beacon and MST’s FARA workflow management solution uses this information to determine the location of the SMART device that FARA is running on and therefore its location in the mine or tunnel.

The AXON air+ also receives BLE broadcasts from tags and this information is used by MST’s geolocation software to locate these BLE tags and their associated personnel and/or equipment in the mine or tunnel.

The AXON air+ can be mounted directly onto an AXON core unit or independently to a rock surface.

The AXON air+ has two PoE+ ports that allows it to be daisy-chained eliminating the need for external switches or power supplies. This also enables Wi-Fi and BLE coverage to be extended into hard to get to places without the need for fibre – for example, workshops, declines and the last mile – reducing the overall cost of the solution.

Decision time: What AXON device should you choose?

Both the AXON mesh and air models complement each other and can both be used in addition to our AXON core unit.

The best step forward is to book in a chat with our team so we can look at your mine and assess what you’ll need for your operation that’s fit-for purpose.

Mr Eisner said since the introduction of BLE functionality, the AXON products would also work even better with other technologies within the MST Global product family.

“We have a product called FARA, which is a productivity enhancing product which we refer to as ‘reverse tracking’ relying on Bluetooth technology,” Mr Eisner said.

“By bringing Bluetooth as a comprehensive underlying technology into our AXON stack, it now becomes far more flexible and fluent, so you can use and exchange these devices whichever way you want without losing additional technology. “

“Prior to it, you may have had specialised BLE readers. Now there is one device that does it all. Our AXON products are a bit like a swiss army knife of wireless communication.”

Our AXON network infrastructure also came with the addition of uninterrupted power supply.

“We normally supply power supply and uninterrupted power supplies (UPS) with our systems. The main reason for that is obviously, any IT solutions, particularly if they are safety-based, really need what we call Five nines uptime,” Mr Eisner said.

“This is also a main feature of these solutions that distinguish us completely from other technology providers.

“Power is not easily available underground, there are no sockets or anything around, so it becomes difficult to get hold of power but carrying that through the same communication cable is a very convenient way of doing it.”

If you’d like some more information on our underground network connectivity solutions, book a free chat with our team of technical consultants today or download our information packs.
July 20, 2021