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Digital Transformation in Mining

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Mining companies are at a tipping point. Here’s how wireless could help transform their operations.

By Marc Jadoul

Although minerals are the life blood of the world economy, mining companies operate in an uncertain and changeable economic environment. As the proportion of labor to operating costs is high, price fluctuations in commodity markets can turn profitable extraction to dust in a matter of hours or days. As shareholder expectations grow, mining companies are under pressure to increase productivity, efficiency and effectiveness. 

Often working in remote and challenging environments, they also must work hard to meet stringent environmental requirements, while complying with worker safety and health regulations. Throughout history, miners have looked to improve safety and gain a mechanical advantage using heavy machinery to automate tasks such as drilling, blasting, loading, hauling and crushing. Although mostly manually operated today, mining companies are pursuing the automation of everything through the adoption of digital technologies—otherwise known as Industry 4.0. By developing remote operations to supplement automation, mining workers can monitor automated processes and operate machinery at a distance using virtual telepresence. 

In its 2018 Tracking the Trends report on mining, Deloitte observed that automation can add as much 10–20% productivity. Similarly, a 2017 World Economic Forum (WEF) report predicted that by 2025 a typical digital “first mover” mining company may have an EBITDA at least 70 percent higher than those who simply continue business as usual. 

Clearly, mining companies are at a tipping point. In order to thrive in an increasingly challenging environment, they need to reimagine their operations paradigms and embrace new technologies.

To benefit from emerging digital technologies such as autonomous vehicles, internet of things (IoT), machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI), mines require ubiquitous network infrastructure throughout the operations chain to link machines, people and compute resources everywhere. The network must also support a wide spectrum of applications with very diverse requirements on payloads, bandwidth and latency; including mobile broadband, mission-critical push-to-talk (PTT) and push-to-video (PTV), high-definition video streaming, future augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) applications, machine-to-machine communication (e.g. telemetry) and narrowband IoT sensors/actuators for on-surface, in-pit and underground operations. Cyber security is also a major concern for mining companies.

To make this digital transformation successful, “mines of the future” will require a mission-critical network that supports robust wireless mobility, coverage and capacity in remote, harsh environments. The network needs to be resilient, Quality of Service (QoS) enabled and secure as it carries delay-sensitive applications and business-critical data. Because when communication stops, mining activities stop, which results in massive economic loss.

Most mining communication networks, however, were born in an era when new technology was introduced to host a single application. P25 and TETRA private radio, for example, were never designed to support the real-time delivery of large volumes of video and data, or to connect massive numbers of low-power IoT sensors. To accommodate new applications, many mines have deployed a parallel Wi-Fi network to support their automation needs. Unfortunately, current Wi-Fi technology does not provide the coverage, capacity, latency and QoS required for industrial applications. The left side of the figure below lists some typical performances experienced with Wi-Fi networks and access points in mining environments.

As a result, mining operators are beginning to look to proven technology used for a decade in public mobile networks worldwide: LTE. Because this cellular technology has all the features and characteristics required by the vast majority of mining applications, it can play a key role in mining’s digitalization. 

Until very recently, LTE technology was reserved for mobile operators because they had a monopoly on LTE radio spectrum. But governments around the world are now releasing new spectrum specially designated for private networks and mobile operators are willing to lease their spectrum, especially in remote areas where mines commonly operate. Private LTE can operate in unlicensed/lightly licensed spectrum as well. 

LTE has all the capabilities of Ethernet in a mobile wireless format and, unlike most new disruptive technologies, it already has a mature system of connected industrial devices. Private wireless, based on LTE, can support all mission- and business-critical applications on a single network —as shown on the right side of the figure. These applications include PTT and PTV group communications, high-definition video streaming, and edge computing enabled low-latency remote, automated and autonomous operations. It also provides a fast route to IoT, telemetry and advanced analytics applications to turn real-time data into actionable insights. 

Today, private LTE-based solutions are already being used by large enterprises worldwide to support their business- and mission-critical applications — for power utilities and smart cities, manufacturing, airports and port operations. LTE will also help mining companies address their transformation challenges, while paving the way toward the adoption of even more capable 5G mobile technologies.

Marc Jadoul is strategic marketing director for Nokia. Another column from Nokia can be found here.

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