Jaime Laguna on connecting mining operations using integrated industrialised devices
The case for the connected mine is a compelling one. Mining companies are coming under rising pressure to reduce costs, improve productivity, comply with increasingly sharpened regulatory requirements and adopt more sustainable practices. Many are turning to digitalisation, leveraging connected sensors, vehicles and machinery to help them achieve these goals. This will allow them to unlock the value of their operational data and take advantage of Industry 4.0 capabilities such as automated/tele-remote operations, artificial intelligence (AI), real-time situational awareness and data analytics.
Private wireless 4G/LTE and 5G networks enable these digitalisation efforts – providing a foundation for secure, robust and pervasive connectivity in remote locations where public wireless networks are unavailable. Offering greater predictability and reliability than other enterprise wireless and proprietary technologies, these networks provide better coverage along the extensive tunnel systems and confined spaces of underground mines, as well as the breadth of coverage required to connect vast mining operations above ground.
This is why mine operators are looking to end-to-end networking solutions that meet their distinct connectivity needs, while using robust devices designed to withstand the harsh conditions in and around a mine site. Dust, moisture, extreme temperatures, changing topology, as well as shock and vibration from blasting activities all put the infrastructure continuously to the test.
Connecting Equipment To The Communications Network
Many digitisation projects are currently taking place that demonstrate the benefits of critical connectivity in working mining environments. Vehicles and machines are equipped with integrated industrial field routers that connect them reliably to the 4.9G/LTE or 5G network, ensuring constant readiness and availability for data transfer.
One use case for safer and more productive connected mining is autonomous operations. Global heavy equipment manufacturer, Komatsu, was a pioneer in deploying its autonomous haulage systems (AHS) on private LTE networks. The company has demonstrated how private wireless is increasing the productivity and efficiency of its truck fleets.
Private cellular networks offer the industrial-grade robustness, high capacity and low latency required for such operations. They support pervasive coverage for the delivery of real-time, high-definition video feeds and sensor data that Wi-Fi can’t achieve, allowing operators to remotely halt and begin work in an instant.
Reliable And Robust Industrial Field Router Connectivity
Ruggedised routers and dongles provide interoperability between the network and industrial equipment. Mining companies have made significant investments in trucks, loaders, haulers, diggers and other equipment. Embedded robust field routers with hardened casings, and high IP ratings connect them reliably to private wireless networks in harsh conditions.
Private wireless access points cover much larger areas, with more pervasive connectivity than Wi-Fi access points where the configuration is more sensitive to the effects of blasts and the coverage is easily blocked by metal objects, rock walls and piles of stones. Devices with shock and vibration design features that can support a wide range of spectrums and efficient traffic paths for multiple industrial protocols deliver the most robust and efficient solutions.
Pervasive connectivity is especially important for tele-operated and autonomous vehicles which navigate roads with remote or minimal driver control, so there’s no tolerance for communication hiccups or disconnection from the network when vehicles and machinery traverse rough terrain. Safety is an important issue in mining, and the adoption of such systems provides an opportunity to remove people from potentially hazardous situations.
Connecting The Workforce
It’s not just integrated routers and dongles that need to be protected against the elements – handheld devices, workpads and other user equipment must also be dust-, weather- and shock-proof in order to keep operations moving.
Handheld devices should support mission-critical push-to-talk and push-to-video (PTT/PTV) to allow teams to maintain vital contact. In today’s connected mine, they should also be able to leverage advanced business applications and features such as high-precision positioning, allowing companies to access geolocation capabilities to quickly locate personnel and assets, and to keep workers out of dangerous areas.
The fact that these mission-critical voice and video communication services can be deployed on the same cellular network infrastructure also eliminates the need for separate LMR/PMR radio networks such as TETRA or P25 or any two-way radio communication.
Speeding Adoption Of New Connected Mine Capabilities
Industrial-grade private 4.9G/LTE and 5G networks offer extensive capabilities for today’s mines. Equipment automation for 24/7 operations, advanced data analytics and capabilities such as geolocation will all contribute to this – ensuring maintenance times and costs are reduced, and safety, productivity and sustainability are enhanced. Support for AR and VR capabilities will further enhance remote maintenance activities as well as training, providing a more immersive and interactive experience.
For mining companies to truly leverage the potential of the connected mine, they should investigate private 4G and 5G wireless networks with integrated industrial devices. This will allow them to accelerate deployment and simplify adoption of new capabilities to meet their Industry 4.0 goals.
Jaime Laguna is head of Nokia's mining and oil and gas business