James Trevelyan explores the huge potential of the connected mine of the future
As the global mining industry navigates a period of huge uncertainty due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many companies are turning to technology. With 75 %, according to McKinsey and Company, admitting there has been a significant impact on their operations, it is no wonder almost half of all budgets were slashed in 2020 and that productivity worldwide fell by around 42%. This relentless pressure has put an increased emphasis on the need for digital transformation capable of delivering reduced downtime, greater efficiency and improved safety.
This is where the concept of the Connected Mine could revolutionise operations and put the power back into the hands of managers. The mining sector has long been known for its volatile nature, but with the aid of innovation, it has been made possible to provide some form of predictability.
Connected mines - A digital transformation
When it comes to the Connected Mine, it is the connections that provide the best value through a range of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, which can produce an in-depth insight of workers, equipment and processes. Linking together people on the ground with managers at global or regional control centres, physical devices and software, the Connected Mine means sites can be run with less highly qualified personnel and yield a greater return on investment in the long-term.
From automated vehicles to sensors providing real-time information from the field, the Connected Mine works by using several different solutions such as IoT, radio local area networks (LANs), on-site wide-area networks (WANs) and VSAT connectivity. Not only is quality of life improved for workers with access to the outside world for entertainment and catch-up time with their family and friends, but the Connected Mine also provides essential online support and a deep insight for managers with data gathered from every application.
As the pressure to maintain productivity and minimise operating costs grow, some businesses are already turning to technology, with the global mining automation market expected to grow by 7.3% CAGR by 2025.
With economic benefits of US$370 billion over the next five years, it is critical that enterprises adopt new technology in their operations to avoid being left behind. Those that fail to embrace it will face continued inefficiencies and high costs, whilst the price of ore and yields continues to fall. Therefore, the Connected Mine has become vitally important; providing the breakthrough needed to launch operators forward for success.
Connected mine requirements for smart networking
However, this concept relies on the ability to have reliable, high-performance connectivity, which is not always possible in the remote locations where mines are often located. Without this requirement, even mines with technology would soon become extremely unsafe, with bosses unable to make accurate decisions as people and devices would be unable to communicate.
For the network to be installed successfully, there are very specific considerations that must be met. It needs to be able to handle the relatively harsh conditions of the mine environment, consistently handle different amounts of traffic and support enterprise applications.
The network must also be flexible to offer optimised services throughout the mine’s lifecycle and offer the maximum uptime and security. Installation services, field maintenance and helpdesk support are additional features to consider, so that any company implementing it always has access to help.
Smart management is also important to consider. Being able to integrate cellular, microwave, Wi-Fi, optical fibre, VSAT and low-bandwidth connectivity seamlessly is essential, whilst dynamic load balancing will guarantee applications receive the exact amount of data required to improve efficiency. This intelligence also means the best price-performance ratio can be selected to ensure the greatest possible service is provided at all times.
Although onsite connectivity has often relied on Wi-Fi supported by microwave, private LTE has become the forerunner. Offering coverage that goes deeper underground and has a further range than Wi-Fi, private LTE is now the preferred technology of choice, capable of supporting the whole site. It is perfect for supporting the different IoT applications integrated within a mine, from asset tracking technology on automatic loaders to camera surveillance systems and provides a roadmap to 5G, which will deliver lower latency and higher bandwidth. It also consists of military-grade security and has a better guaranteed performance for multiple users.
Reaping the rewards of connected mines
With a reliable network in place, operators can finally reap the benefits that the Connected Mine promises. The operator of the world’s largest uranium mine in Kazakhstan uses this concept through a critical communications infrastructure which connects the site to its headquarters in Nur-sultan. This has allowed for remote real-time management, which has significantly reduced operating costs.
Meanwhile, an iron site in Western Australia has access to 130Mbps of connectivity using Middle Earth Orbit satellites that provide a low latency service. This connectivity has met the site’s growing needs for data, which optimises its operations and supports the welfare of over 300 staff with voice, data and video services.
A gold producer in Russia has a network that connects 30 different sites across Siberia and the Far East, with headquarter control rooms in major cities. By using smart network management, up to 100Mpbs of bandwidth is allocated dynamically across the sites based on demand for network transmissions.
The future of connected mines
As mining continues to be a precarious business full of challenges relating to productivity, declining reserves and falling prices, it is important operators get ahead with technology to stay in the game. By embracing the concept of the Connected Mine, companies can make intelligent decisions, save money, and improve safety.
However, to fully achieve this it is critical they have access to solutions, such as the ones offered by Speedcast, that provide support for IoT, connectivity services and smart network management. This will ensure all equipment, operations and staff have access to the information they need to complete their work and keep processes safe along with the required bandwidth and infrastructure. Through this combined system, managers can make better business decisions, or even have advanced technology that can step in and apply automatic measures to avoid any system failures or safety hazards. It will then be possible to create predictive maintenance schedules, remove any production bottlenecks and enable real-time monitoring.
James Trevelyan is with Speedcast