Connected development

Online Editor

Alastair MacLeod details why failsafe connectivity is key to unlocking the value of the Industrial Internet of Things in mining

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has been transforming global industries and driving digitalisation for some years now – the mining sector is no exception. From remote support for technicians and crews maintaining machinery to minimise downtime, to environmental monitoring of water and air quality, the IIoT eco-system is delivering efficiencies and productivity to meet
the demands of an ever-evolving mining landscape.

But everything is underpinned by reliable and resilient connectivity. After all, fragmented data and gaps can give a wildly inaccurate picture of operations and can lead to serious safety issues. Here, we argue that despite the myriad of measurable benefits IIoT offers, everything will fall at the first hurdle if connectivity isn’t addressed as a priority.

Recent years have brought innovation across the international mining community. For example, initiatives such as electric mining, where a commitment to move away from diesel fleets and towards electric and hybrid vehicles, both above and underground, is helping to pave the way for a more productive and sustainable industry.

Likewise, evolving technologies are being employed to enhance operations – we’ve seen a rise in the use of augmented reality (AR) to improve productivity, training and worker safety through remote operations. AR is also enabling remote distance support so engineers based at HQ have visuals and can effectively collaborate with on-site operatives.

As the industry continues to innovate to meet challenges head on, IIoT remains at its heart. Given the often hostile and remote nature of the environments associated with mining, the ability to monitor and analyse data, enabling quick, effective business decisions and automation would not be possible without the rapid, real-time delivery of data.

A connected mine is a smart mine

Smart mining projects are anticipated to be increased threefold, according to Ericsson’s ‘Connected Mining Report’ of 2020, where it’s projected that 25% of mines will embrace autonomous operations by 2025.

The biggest challenge, however, is how data can reliably be collated and sent, especially given the remote nature of a mine – at best cellular coverage is likely unreliable, at worst cellular coverage may be non-existent. Despite roll-out of faster wireless 4G/5G services, it’s estimated that only 15% of the earth’s surface has cellular coverage. However, for Europe at least, this has been accelerated due to strong financing provided by the Next Generation EU Plan – a temporary measure to help support the economic and social damage caused by Covid-19 to the tune of
€750bn ($868bn).

Although satellite has been deemed an expensive option for many operators in the past, it is reducing in cost as more providers diversify their offering and devices that support exception reporting. Crucially though, the cost of an ‘always on’ connectivity solution is a drop in the ocean when compared to the potential monetary and safety repercussions of delayed or undelivered data. With heavy equipment constantly rolling and unforgiving conditions underground, safety needs to be at the fore, and seconds are crucial.

Without connectivity, you cannot gain vital fleet telemetry data or understand excavator performance. Satellite is currently the only fail-safe option to ensure connectivity isn’t compromised. It enables companies to retrieve real-time data and provides a robust failover should anything happen.

Satellite connectivity, including the newer low earth orbit (LEO) satellites -–which offer improved speed and ultralow latency to transmit sensor data -– is reliable, effective, and capable of bridging the gap between legacy technology and digital service evolution. What’s more, it can be implemented at a far lower cost than many might think to connect remote mines to head office and the supply chain.

The impact of no connectivity

Without consistent, reliable connectivity, mining companies not only become operationally hamstrung, but the impacts will be felt in performance and on the bottom line.

Robust connectivity is crucial for all the reasons so far outlined. But crucially, it keeps an organisation efficient and operational – critical in the turbulent times we now face post-Covid.

Satellite allows timely delivery of critical information, negating the requirement for employees to make frequent and costly onsite visits in areas not serviced by 4G/5G, and provides the ability to accurately diagnose problems online before any production time is lost and costly breakdowns occur. Satellite connectivity delivers accurate, real-time data for full operation visibility – not just when it is needed, but autonomously.

Ground Control has supported mining companies for decades and the firm has never been more excited about the potential of new IIoT-based satellite services. From edge computing devices to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, the mining industry has never had more sophisticated opportunities to optimise data capture and retrieval, and automate processes. But that comes with a caveat – without the connectivity infrastructure to transfer sensor data from anywhere in the world, regardless of location, businesses won’t benefit from the true value of their IIoT installation or project.  Given that IIoT projects can deliver a 30% cost saving over a five-year period once executed, ensuring connectivity is addressed as a priority is essential.

Over the coming decade, potentially thousands of satellites, including NanoSats for remote surveillance around the world, will be launched into Earth’s orbit. This will alter how all industries operate, providing mining companies with an exciting opportunity to maximise their data, and operations at more affordable costs.

Alastair MacLeod is CEO of Ground Control