By Gary Conway
There is a big shift happening in mining around digital automation. Miners have always used machines to boost their productivity, but until recently, digital technologies have played a more limited role. Autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence and machine learning are combining to create a new Industry 4.0 approach to mining.
Driving the adoption of these digital technologies is the need for continuous improvement in safety, productivity and efficiency. The result has been an unprecedented demand for automating and optimizing all aspects of open pit and underground mining operations.
While the industry has focused on these Industry 4.0 technologies, new industrial wireless communications systems such as 4.9G/LTE and 5G will also play a critical role in enabling these digital technologies and are transforming the way mining views the strategic importance of digital communications.
LTE or 4.9G is the last iteration in the 4G standard before the world moves to 5G, which will roll out in several releases
over the next four to five years. These technologies provide performance enhancements over older technologies, such as Wi-Fi and Wi-Max, offering Ethernet-like bandwidth, low latency and security characteristics, all delivered wirelessly, with full support for mobile applications.
Reflecting this high level of performance, mining solution providers like Komatsu and Sandvik are embracing 4.9G/LTE and 5G by ensuring that their equipment and applications run seamlessly on these networks. For instance, Komatsu autonomous ore haulers have been making news over the last few years at some of the bigger surface mining operations worldwide, and private wireless networks are playing a crucial role in making that possible.
Whereas previously, 4.9G/LTE spectrum was only available for mobile network operators, governments are recognizing the strategic importance of these new communications standards by releasing spectrum for 4.9G/LTE and 5G that will be reserved for the use of private networks such as those operated by mines. There are also new forms of LTE (e.g., MulteFire) that can operate in unlicensed spectrum.
The arrival of new, industrial-strength wireless communications based on 4.9G/LTE and 5G should be causing mines to re-think their overall approach to digital communications at the mine site. Over time, they will begin to see communications, and especially wireless communications, as a strategic enabler for the automated mine of the future.
This will represent a change in the normal attitude of miners toward communications technologies. Mining is unlike many businesses where, typically, IT is responsible for the enterprise network and drives the corporate approach to internet and communications technology (ICT). In mining, the choice of communications technologies is driven by the operations technology teams (OT). They tend to focus on the point solution or application and choose the appropriate communications technology for the job.
Given the rapid evolution of communications technologies over the last few decades, it has certainly made more sense to go with the best of breed technology du jour, then try to standardize on one. However, with the communications field converging very quickly on a single approach to industrial communications, it is time to think more strategically about communications. A 4.9G/LTE network today, which will seamlessly evolve to 5G in the next few years, is actually an investment in a digital transformation platform.
The problem with choosing communications systems based on a point solution or single use case is that OT has, in many cases, inadvertently created a hodge-podge of different, purpose-built networks to support the various applications. As they embrace mine-wide digital transformation, this patchwork of networks will prove to be both a liability and a missed opportunity.
On the operations cost side, managing, updating, troubleshooting and securing multiple networks makes for more work than necessary. It also leads to complexity, which is one of the biggest enemies of predictability, by multiplying the possible points of failure. Running all applications on a single LTE network reduces that complexity and improves operational continuity — and end-to-end security.
In terms of lost opportunities, a hodge-podge of different networks also makes it more difficult to share data between applications. One of the principal advantages of digital transformation is that analytics programs can process, filter and sort through reams of logged data to identify things that humans might miss. Sometimes data from one application can be correlated with data from another for unique insights. These might lead, for instance, to workflow optimization or more accurately predict the time-to-failure of key assets.
Pulling all this data together is much simpler when the majority of applications share the same connectivity platform. Having a total digital picture of the mine’s operations enables analytics software to fully understand the system-level risks and their impact on the bottom line. They can red flag operational and maintenance priorities, whether they concern environmental hazards, worker safety or possible points of asset failure. The key to this level of digital integration is having a single digital communications system that supports all possible applications.
The beauty of 4.9G/LTE today, and 5G tomorrow, is they have been designed for industrial applications. They have support for low-power IoT sensors and devices. They have been engineered to deliver extremely low latencies (the round-trip time for data), which is required by automation. And they are highly secure. In more than a decade of use, no public LTE network has been breached. LTE networks have been tested thoroughly by public safety authorities and are being deployed for next-generation national emergency services networks with full support for push-to-talk and push-to-video private radio services.
As mines pursue digital transformation applications, they often start with a single use case, such as autonomous ore trucks or remote-controlled drill/blast machines. This leads them to install private 4.9G/LTE networks because of the need to support mobility, high bandwidth for on-board video, and low latencies for immediate response to sensor input. Once the business case is made for installing the private wireless network, however, it becomes obvious that other use cases can be supported.
Over time, the mine naturally migrates other applications on to the 4.9G/LTE network. They can replace the TETRA or P25 radio network. It can support remote video surveillance and cameras on moving machinery, digital personal protection equipment, geofencing, environmental sensors, equipment monitoring, remotely operated trains, and the list goes on. As the applications add up, costs go down and the opportunities for digital transformation multiply.
Somewhere in this process, the attitude shifts from communications as simply a part of a point solution, to communications as a strategic enabler of digital transformation. Over time, 4.9G/LTE and, in the very near future, 5G will replace most existing communication technologies currently employed by mines and prove to be one of the key technologies in creating the digital mine of the future.
Gary Conway is global head of mining business at Nokia.