Digitalisation in mining is the future — and it starts with the right network

Ericsson Australia Pty Ltd

By Kirstin Sym-Smith* and Siham Himer Soufiani^
Tuesday, 24 January, 2023

Digitalisation in mining is the future — and it starts with the right network

As digitalisation in mining comes to the forefront, the functions of a connected mine — things like automation, mixed reality and IoT-driven temperature sensors — will require a purpose-built network that delivers reliability and security.

The smart mine is the mine of the future

The global mining equipment market is expected to grow to $125.7 billion by 2025, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5% from 2021–2025, driven by increased adoption of smart technologies like automation and remote-controlled machinery. That’s a sign that companies know digitalisation in mining is the future.

But all the new use cases and exciting smart technologies have one thing in common — they need to be powered by fast, reliable and secure connectivity solutions. And it won’t be enough to simply connect these devices to wireless (or fixed) broadband. The right kind of connectivity, and the right kind of network, purpose-built for a rugged environment like mining, is critical to achieving the efficiency and safety results a smart mine can bring. In addition, mining companies are being squeezed by some of the labour and supply chain issues facing nearly every industry today, creating pressure to cut costs and get more ore from existing mines.

Mining companies are justifiably excited about technologies like automation, mixed reality, digital twinning and more. They have the potential to create operational efficiencies, save money and time on repairs by making maintenance smarter, and increase safety by taking human workers out of dangerous situations. But all this cutting-edge technology won’t help if it’s not connected by the right kind of network.

A network to meet mission-critical needs

Demand for things like the rare minerals needed to make today’s high-tech devices is fuelling the growth of what’s already a $500 billion global industry in mining.

To meet these needs, mining operators need a cellular network built specifically for their use cases of today and tomorrow. A commercial LTE network, designed for consumer traffic that consists mainly of video and data download, doesn’t have the same high security, flexibility and upstream traffic needs to handle the demands of an industrial environment like a mine. A few examples:

  • Traffic priority: A purpose-built, private LTE network allows mine operators to prioritise traffic to critical functions in a mine, like ventilation. It’s a way to ensure the most data-heavy parts of a connected mine have the bandwidth they need to stay operational. It can also be a way to increase efficiency by running low-capacity systems like an IoT temperature sensor network in a different way than a remotely operated digger.
  • Upstream vs downstream: A commercial LTE network is mostly ‘downstream’ traffic, meaning that it primarily uses it to download data; things like streaming media, downloading photos or applications, or digital media like books. So, the network is designed to prioritise this traffic. But in an industrial environment, the heavy traffic use is upstream. An IoT-enabled network of sensors reporting temperature or air quality data or a remote vehicle sending live video feedback to its operator requires robust upload speeds. Private LTE networks can provide up to 45 Mbps upstream capability.
  • Low latency: Many of the most exciting new use cases for digitalisation in mining depend on not only high speeds and reliable connectivity but low latency. Things like remote operation and VR-assisted maintenance simply won’t work if there’s too much lag between the operator and the device.
  • Dynamic network: A connectivity solution such as Wi-Fi or VHF leaky feeder, which the mining industry has traditionally used to power digital devices, is inadequate for these new use cases. Beyond the bandwidth and speed requirements, networks in industrial situations must be dynamic, able to move as the mine expands or capacity needs to be sent to a certain area of the facility.
  • Redundancy: Many of the connected functions in the digitalisation of mining are critical, involving worker safety or the structural integrity of the mine itself. A major advantage to an industrial LTE system over a commercial network is full redundancy, ensuring all equipment and systems will remain covered. Networks with built-in redundancy also allow operators to keep critical functions up and running, even when things need to be repaired or upgraded. In addition to redundant coverage, these networks are also purpose-built for the harsh environmental conditions of a mine.
  • Local core: One of the features of a private network, compared to commercial LTE, is that the data is stored and processed locally rather than sent to a remote site or the cloud. This has several benefits, including security and improved processing power to handle more data for things like camera feeds and real-time environmental sensors.
  • Ability to upgrade: Private networks in industrial settings like mining mainly deploy 4G/LTE mobile broadband. But as the industry continues to adopt new technology like automation, digital twins and VR, applications will require higher speeds, higher throughput and lower latency. Luckily, the installed equipment can be seamlessly upgraded to 5G without requiring costly hardware overhauls.

A reliable, secure and integrated platform for the mine of the future

All of these factors will be important considerations for mine operators as they bring connectivity to more aspects of the mine and introduce new technologies to make operations smarter, safer and more efficient. It’s an exciting time for the industry, but this digitalisation in mining needs to rest on the bedrock of a robust and reliable connectivity solution. The connected mine of the future needs more than a connectivity platform that’s good enough. An industrial LTE network, purpose-built for the needs of a mine, can be the enabler for a productive and valuable digital transformation.

*Kirstin Sym-Smith is Director of Business Development, Mining Industry, Ericsson North America.

^Siham Himer Soufiani is Senior Solutions Director within Ericsson’s MANA Enterprise and Emerging Business team.

This article was previously posted on the Ericsson blog and has been republished here with permission.

Image credit:

Originally published here.

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