You might think of 5G as the latest iteration of cellular radio technologies where, by an unbreakable rule, performance improves over time. 5G is certainly an upgrade on GSM, GPRS (‘2.5G'), 3G and 4G, but it's more than that. And the good news for underground miners is that 5G is destined to be a good fit.
OK, so 5G provides extra speed and greater bandwidth so more devices can access it. It adds support for a wider range of frequency bands to boost range. And it has some clever features relating to latency and business continuity to mean that, even if there are service interruptions and glitches, connectivity persists.
Of course, this being technology spec stuff, there are caveats. Yes, 5G is blazingly fast on the face of it but the usual latency blockers (distance from antennae, physical impediments, contention from other devices and so on) mean that theoretical maximum speeds in the multiple gigabits-per-second range tend often to be pie in the cellular sky. But 5G, together with complementary factors such as growing convergence with other network technologies such as WiFi and the fruition of machine-to-machine and (M2M) and Internet of Things (IoT)-type approaches to render dumb endpoints smart, means that wireless communications is becoming ever more powerful.
Why, ultimately, should miners care about all this technological mumbo-jumbo? Because wireless offers a way to communicate in often cramped, dangerous conditions, especially underground. The rise of 5G, which is now entering its fourth year of availability, means that it's possible to hook up a great deal of above-ground and below-ground processes and meld hybrid IT/OT use cases. If we can capitalise on 5G in harness with other technologies, we can effectively ‘see' underground with sensors reporting back on air quality, moisture, visibility, progress of work visualisations and beyond. Practically then, the advantages are clear: the ability to work faster, smarter and with reduced risk. And on the supplier side, it's little wonder that networking giants such as Cisco, Nokia and Ericsson see so much potential.
Sagar Chandra, vice president of sales to the Americas at private wireless networking company Rajant, takes a conservative but positive angle.
"Providers of technology view 5G as another wireless option with benefits and challenges," he says. "The opportunities to improve efficiency and safety, such as with tele-operated and autonomous systems, continue to be developed utilising 5G and traditional wireless networks. As the quantity of these data-intensive systems grows, the need for a hybrid 5G/wireless network has become essential."
5G is at the early-adopter stage. There are many proof-of-concept exercises but scaled-up operations are fewer and most early work is on private networks that allow miners high levels of control and security. But a combination of 4G, LTE and 5G may be the coming combined network force.
"5G has not impacted mining yet as it is still a new technology and it takes time to develop an industrial ecosystem that leverages 5G," cautions Brendan Conroy, head of mining, oil and gas for Nokia in the APJ region.
"In mining, all use cases can be easily achieved using private wireless networks that utilise [lower-speed, lower-range] 4.9G/LTE for cases such as autonomous haulage, connected workforce, remote machine operations, condition-based monitoring and asset tracking . The addition of 5G to these networks in the future [by adding 5G radios to future-ready private networks] will enable additional capacity and future new use cases."
Jon Collins of analyst firm GigaOm is similarly cautious but bullish in the long term.
"What 5G brings, and certainly private, bring-it-yourself 5G, is a levelling up. Mining technology is really behind the curve and what 5G enables is a reset or even revolution."
Collins quips that mining has the chance to make a rare leap: "When people talk about Industry 4.0, mining was at 0.5, so there's an opportunity to catch up and leap forward, almost from the 1930s to the 2030s. You can perform data analytics and make better decisions, manage risk better and identify what seams to mine."
Nokia's Conroy, however, sees mining as leader in private networking, spurred on by the need to for safe autonomous remote operations.
"Private wireless has grown rapidly within the mining sectors and many other industrial segments as enterprise customers are now realising the benefits to provide reliable and predictable wireless connectivity over large areas. Many mines still use wireless networks designed for consumer use and non-mission critical use cases, but are now are transitioning to world-class, mission-critical networks with private wireless."
And Rajant's Chandra also sees the equation of mining with being a laggard as "two or three decades" out of date when talking specifically about networking.
"In the past five to seven years, mining companies have embraced the use of all-new available technologies such as drones, tele-operated and autonomous solutions, robots, and AI," he says.
"Today, every GM of a mining operation expects their team to have a real-time view of the production from the fleet, any abnormal events, safety measures, and of course, how efficient the operation is."
As for best practices in deployment, Rajant's Chandra says hybrid networks combining 5G and mesh make powerful simultaneous links.
"The hybrid design offers higher performance and availability by ensuring continued coverage, bandwidth and scalability for ever-changing pit conditions," he adds. "Since 5G rollouts typically require more infrastructure nodes, it is important for the mining operation to look at total cost of investment, including initial cost and annual maintenance costs."
Eyes on the prize
Nokia's Conroy advises miners to keep their eyes on the (business-orientated) prize.
"The best practice for deployment is to understand the business use," he says. "The private wireless use in open pit mining started in 2011 with Rio Tinto, and since then Nokia has deployed in many mines around the world with all of the large mining companies. The ‘what not to do' is to implement a technology without understanding the drivers and also not having the right partner [or] system integrator implement the right design."
As an example of potential technology snafus, Conroy cites network integration.
"The main issues around disparate wireless networks are interference from contested networks, roaming from end-user devices from one network technology to another, and management of multiple networks, as different technology skill sets are needed."
And what of the future?
GigaOm's Collins says there is serious scope to virtualise mining in the way datacentres have been virtualised for greater oversight, value and control.
"The ROI from installing 5G is significant because you have unfettered access to benefits [if miners work with large expert partners that have access to necessary skills and experience]. For preliminary forays into 5G and LTE, consider ‘in a box' solutions offering subscription pricing."
And Rajant's Chandra is also positive.
"The focus on uses of IoT continues to be strong in the pit and on the plant side of mining operations," he suggests. "For some of these environments, 5G can be the ideal solution, while for those operations with a deeper pit, or those with a high demand of bandwidth-per-asset, advancing the use of IoT is not tied to 5G."
More broadly, Chandra says that 5G and its complementary partner technologies (cloud, data analytics, edge networks, GPS, AR and VR) fit with today's demand for safer, often remote-control mining operations.
"The Covid years produced many changes to our way of living and working [including] the focus on preventative measures to help the health of not only the production fleet, but also on the health of the human asset. Mining operations continue to invest in new technology that helps improve employees' health which directly correlates with their availability to show up for work."