Solar flare leaves miners in the dark

Nick Evans

Mines across the State were disrupted yesterday after a massive solar flare knocked out signals from Russian global positioning satellites relied on by resource companies for GPS systems.

NASA rated the solar flare as one of the most serious in recent history, warning about a possible blackout of GPS and other communications systems.

It is understood there were no major production impacts at WA mines, a number of the big miners confirmed yesterday their GPS systems suffered intermittent interruptions as equipment lost contract with satellites from the Russian Glonass network.

Most mine vehicles - including haul trucks, diggers, drill rigs and light vehicles - are fitted with GPS systems. It is used to track vehicles on big mine sites for safety reasons and big mining companies are becoming increasingly reliant on the technology as they move to more automated workplaces.

GPS systems are used for fleet monitoring and assignment, for planning and placement of drill and blast operations and for managing processing stockpiles.

Autonomous, or remotely controlled systems such as those used by Rio Tinto in the Pilbara, are heavily reliant on GPS. BHP and Fortescue Metals Group are also trialling the use of autonomous haul trucks.

The Russian Glonass system is one of three major positioning networks. China and the US have their own satellites, which are understood to have so far been unaffected by the solar flare. But sources say the Russian network provides the most comprehensive coverage of regional Australia and the loss of signal from its satellites made GPS systems across the country unstable and less accurate.

According to a customer support email from US mining equipment Caterpillar yesterday, its MineStar positioning and monitoring systems suffered outages yesterday after the solar flare hit the atmosphere.

"This caused positioning issues at several MineStar sites across the globe, both manned and autonomous, including Solomon, Jimblebar, Yandi, Daunia, Toquepala, and Osisko," the email said. "Current Glonass status has since improved, as approximately half the 24 satellites are transmitting normally."

A spokeswoman for Rio Tinto confirmed its Pilbara mines had been affected by the outage.

Goldfields mines, including AngloGold Ashanti's newly opened Tropicana gold mine, were also affected.

"At Tropicana GPS systems are continuing to operate without the GLONASS satellite signal, however, the reduced number of available satellites has caused the GPS network at the site to become unstable," AngloGold said.