Digital transformation and automation can deliver big rewards for mining companies. Advances in the industrial internet of things (IIoT), artificial intelligence, machine learning, and augmented and virtual reality make it possible to optimize decision making, track assets and monitor people to ensure safe conditions across the entire mining process in open pit and underground mines.
Establishing truly flexible, reliable high-speed networks presents some unique challenges for below-ground environments compared to open-pit sites. Underground mining environments are characterized by thick rock walls, confined spaces and a continuously increasing network of tunnels and galleries — all of which make network planning, design and deployment complex. They also make connectivity crucial: since conditions limit visibility for people and systems, fast, reliable data transfer is vitally important.
Other geological, geotechnical and operational factors such as extraction sequence optimization restrictions and requirements make it essential for connectivity to be ubiquitous. Different teams may operate in different sections of a mine simultaneously, or move between areas from week to week. As more automated processes come online, they need to be enabled even when workers aren't present. Connectivity has to be everywhere.
It's a tall order for any network: deliver flexible and reliable wireless data and voice communication across a continuously changing geography in a variety of harsh production environments — around corners and through walls, despite possible interference — so that automated processes and equipment can function seamlessly, and workers stay connected.
Pervasive and reliable wireless voice and data connectivity is the key to making mining automation work. It enhances critical communications and enables new smart mining applications that can optimize operations.
Right now, many mine sites are held back by aging communications infrastructures that lack the robust capacity, reliability, security or mobility to support the innovation and transformation that automated mining operations demand. Legacy Wi-Fi networks, basic two-way radio communications and TETRA or P25-based radio networks, simply weren't created to cater for the demands of ultra-broadband and mission-critical use cases and video communications. Proprietary network technologies also don't have roadmaps that embrace future requirements the way that standards-based solutions do.
Industrial-grade private 4.9G and 5G provide a single infrastructure for reliable, secure voice, data and video communications and automated applications in underground mines with low latency and high-speed data transfer.
While coverage of a single antenna is often limited to a section or a gallery, the power of the 4.9G/LTE or 5G signal makes it convenient for supporting caving, room-and-pillar and long wall mining methods as well as in-mine mission-critical and emergency voice and video communications.
Virtually any underground application requiring wireless connectivity can run on private wireless, including autonomous vehicles, robotic processes and smart sensors — even applications that could be served by cabled connections, such as CCTV camera feeds. This is because LTE and 5G have the necessary bandwidth while also being able to support low-power sensor and IoT networks, and to adapt to older network protocols for legacy applications. If wireless spectrum is available, the same network technology can be deployed on the surface and underground, providing fleet connectivity and person-to-person or group communications across the entire mine.
Industrial 5G environments will deliver the (ultra-) high-definition video and sub-millisecond latency to enable an ever-wider array of use cases involving real-time remote control of high-speed robots and drones, and will connect hundreds of thousands of IoT sensors and industrial devices — above and underground.
In other words, there's no longer a question about which connectivity technology to use for each use case. Private wireless can handle all mission-critical applications. Having just a single network technology to deploy and manage can reduce operating costs significantly while making a whole range of operational gains possible through Industry 4.0 digitalization and automation — both above and below ground.
As there are fewer ‘access points' needed compared to Wi-Fi, cellular technologies are reducing the telecom complexity and footprint (and hence the cost of deployment and operation) in the mine: less fiber backhaul needed, lower power consumption, etc. This also translates in lower probability of network outages that may affect worker safety.
Mining Magazine: What would you say are the key benefits of 5G when it comes to underground safety, will it benefit Collision Avoidance Systems?
Reliable communications are a key requirement to provide safety in mining environments where people and machines are working together. If the network fails, operations may be interrupted or halted. Tele-remote operated and autonomous systems increase the safety as fewer people are underground, and they require less manual intervention for operation, maintenance and repair. Part of the benefits of using 4.9G and 5G is about providing situational awareness which is a factor that can enhance the current Collision Avoidance Systems by providing location awareness of machines and people and connecting the overall data needed for dangers, alarms, etc.
Even if they are not extremely bandwidth hungry, CAS systems need ubiquitous connectivity, pervasive coverage, low latency, and high-accuracy underground location capabilities. 4.9G and 5G are enabling those systems to operate at peak performance.
MM: Will 5G-powered technologies like Augmented Reality also benefit underground mining safety? JL: What are the opportunities and limitations of AR?
AR/VR systems may be used to train workers and give them real-time information, or enable maintenance staff to fix problems fast, with guidance on AR glasses to take them step by step to a rapid resolution of the issue.
AR/VR applications can also be used as a front-end to digital twins that harness data from sensors, cameras, drones and mobile devices to build a digital model of a mining site, providing workers and operations center staff with a real-time and up-to-date view of the environment. Virtual simulations may be used to make accurate estimates of resourcing and production.
Limitations today are more into the ecosystem availability for AR/VR glasses which could be too heavy to be used during operations on site, however this is evolving and the benefits of having a 3D model of the mine or training for equipment repairs will help in savings.
MM: Why aren't all companies in the industry around the world eagerly adopting and embracing 5G underground solutions?
JL: The mining industry overall has been quite conservative in technology adoption and investment in innovation and new technology, but COVID-19 has caused a significant change in how many organizations approach and manage their operations. This has created a window of opportunity to accelerate digital transformation -- marrying IT and OT, by transforming technology, people and processes.
According to an IDC 2021 Worldwide Mining Decision Maker Survey, some 86% of mining companies say they plan to invest in wireless infrastructure in the next 18 months. Most named 5G as their priority because of its lower latency and higher bandwidth, which suggests industry members understand high-performance private wireless networks are essential to fulfilling the promise of Mining 4.0.
5G may be enjoying higher profile these days because of the growing number of public 5G deployments and smartphones on the market — and because some vendors are promoting 4G wins as full 5G. A quick check with Nokia mining customers — which include more than 35 companies operating private wireless networks in more than 60 mines around the world — reveals that most are operating solutions we classify as 4.9G/LTE.
MM: Do you see any other safety areas that can benefit from 5G?
JL: Mining operations teams usually consider the merits of different communication network technologies based on specific use cases. The broad range of private wireless-enabled use cases alone would justify the adoption of an LTE and 5G-based industrial wireless solution for underground mining. These use cases include:
- Massive-scale sensing of critical parameters such as structural integrity, temperature humidity, water leaks, gas levels, dust, noise and vibration to provide near real-time visibility into mine safety
- Enhanced collaboration, improved productivity and worker safety through mission-critical PTT/PTV, video monitoring, and digital PPE
- Tracking and protecting people, equipment and structural integrity through geo-location, geo-tracking and geo-fencing
- Getting real-time alerts when humans enter forbidden areas or vehicles perform unusual maneuvers, either intentionally or unintentionally
- Emergency alerting, evacuation notifications and worker mustering
- Utilizing low-latency communications for blasting control and tele-remote-controlled and autonomous load, haul and dump (LHD) vehicles, robots and drones.
- Creating energy efficiencies and cost savings through close monitoring and control of underground mine ventilation, which ensures safety when workers are present and extends the lifetime of ventilation systems
- Enhanced Situational Awareness starting with connectivity, tracking and visualization of all data for projection and advanced analytics for safety and efficiency.