Mining is rapidly adopting automation and incorporating digital technologies into its operations. These digital applications require adequate network connectivity for mission-critical business operations and industrial-grade wireless mobile communications for their operators.
In the last decade, several wireless connectivity solutions, such as Wi-Fi, have been deployed, but their capabilities have become limited. Mobile 4.9G/LTE technology is available for private wireless networks, is easy to install, maintain and scale, as well as meets the needs of the most ambitious digital mining applications.
The results of digital transformation and automation can be substantial. Advances in technologies such as the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and extended reality (XR) will enable mining companies to optimize decision making, automate processes and eventually replace all manual operations with autonomous systems.
To take full advantage of these technologies and digital applications, mining companies need high-performance wireless connectivity. But many mines still rely on legacy networks that were not built to meet the demands of ultrawideband and mission-critical use cases.
Mining companies, often working in remote and challenging environments, have to strive to meet strict environmental and worker safety standards. The industry is pursuing a strategy of extreme autonomy, in which all manual equipment, such as excavators, ore haulers, crushers and trains, will eventually be replaced by their automated versions.
The attractiveness of an automated application is not always related to cost savings; a self-contained ore hauler is not much cheaper than one with a driver. While miners are always interested in reducing cost per ton, they also pay attention to predictability and continuity of operations. Accidents, delays and handling errors tend to be more common with drivers and also result in large financial losses.
Data collected from a myriad of subway and aerial sensors would allow miners to gain situational awareness throughout the mine, railroad and port, in near real time and identify potential bottlenecks at every step of the process. Leveraging advances in artificial intelligence, miners would be able to dynamically track assets and move on demand.
The key to mining digital transformation
There is one essential ingredient for the success of this digitization in mines: wireless, industrial and seamless connectivity. Without it, most of these technologies would not reach their full potential or could not even be deployed.
Current wireless IT networking technologies, such as wifi and Wi-Max, are not designed for critical industrial-scale connectivity. Wifi was designed for best-effort local area networks in the office or home, for exchanging emails and browsing the Internet. These technologies have been adapted in the past for industrial applications with limited results.
In recent years, Nokia has led the way in making critical wireless networks available to enterprises through industry-grade private wireless solutions that meet 3GPP standards.
The wireless access points, called base cellular radio (BTS), are available in outdoor and indoor versions and can support up to 800 users in active communication per small cell and many more in the case of macro cells. Nokia's industrial wireless solution can scale from very small to very large field operations, with coverage up to 400,000 km2 outdoors and 20 km2 indoors. They can be connected via CAT cables (existing or new), PON cabling or microwave links.
Network access and priority/performance parameters are controlled by the mine. Defined applications, machines, sensors and workers have access and are guaranteed the appropriate level of service. Both LTE and 5G support network segmentation, so that specific network resources can be reserved for specific applications.
This application-centric approach is achieved by combining LTE with IP/MPLS as the basis for the entire network. Thus, for example, autonomous ore carriers can be assigned a specific network segment, TETRA communications another, and IoT sensors a third. This ensures that no other application running on the network can compete for these bandwidth resources.
The digital transformation of mining is advancing rapidly. There is a strong movement among miners to embrace automation. Early applications of autonomous technologies have already delivered productivity, predictability and safety to workers.