Solving wireless connectivity issues in mining
How to build a reliable and secure network that is flexible enough to suit the changing conditions of the mining sector.
Mining is a critical operation that requires massive efforts at various levels to make the process efficient, but operational costs can be reduced significantly with the help of modern technology.
One of the key areas of streamlining that many mining companies concentrate on is fleet management, as both manned and autonomous systems are now being used in mines. These systems use modern applications to communicate with each other and thus need a robust wireless communication channel. Vehicles used in various tasks around the mines can thus operate with real-time updates, which enables them to, for instance, decide between different routes.
Other critical applications supported by wireless communication include production and control, geographic information systems, video monitoring and intrusion detection systems.
A robust wireless network serving a mining pit offers many advantages, from checking the health of machinery in real time to communicating the status of the sites, thus contributing to site safety, security and surveillance. Additionally, the use of real-time video feeds for operations and surveillance is a rising requirement for modern mining sites.
With all these needs and a growing range of applications, the communication network needs to be both time critical and bandwidth intensive.
Challenges in network implementation
Implementing wireless communication channels around any mine is challenging. The network needs to be reliable, scalable, flexible and secure, and have multi-application capabilities. The coverage must also be strong enough around the various terrain levels of the mines — any lapse or failure in communication during the operation could turn out to be fatal.
Mining companies have the option to go with public or private cellular networks; each of these has its pros and cons. Public networks can be installed with minimal investment; however, they are prone to congestion due to the shared architecture and network coverage can be poor if the mining site is remotely located.
In the case of private LTE networks, mining companies can benefit from an advanced dedicated infrastructure; however, the use of licensed spectrum can result in significant capital expenditure, whereas unlicensed spectrum is subject to contention and power restriction.
These challenges are today being addressed through the use of a hybrid architecture, where a dedicated and private network maintains both wireless and wired connections to maintain a high-bandwidth and low-latency backhaul option.
Such a hybrid architecture also eliminates the need for installing communication towers around the mines. The simple placement of routers at strategic points establishes an efficient network that enables all entities to communicate with each other.
In addition to a cost-efficient architecture, the communication network also needs to have high availability, which is a critical requirement for fleet management applications.
Advanced wireless solutions achieve this with a hybrid architecture that integrates cellular connectivity with a self-healing mesh topology that ensures multiple paths for data packets, dynamic operating frequencies and redundancy in the radios. With such a network architecture, operators can ensure 99.99% up-time for the network without any failure.
Furthermore, to overcome transmission challenges such as delays and packet loss, the network could use innovative wireless routing protocols to improve data packet hand-offs proactively, in case of certain path degradation.
Along with these infrastructural challenges, a communication network is also vulnerable to other external interferences. Cybersecurity threats are common in critical mining operations as perpetrators may attempt to hijack the control unit or even the field networks. Thus the network not only has to be robust enough for the challenges around the mines but also has to be secure enough to endure attacks.
With the use of comprehensive options for encryption and authentication, combined with secure storage of keys, credentials and device certificates, wireless networks today can provide the robustness needed to withstand hostile attempts to cripple or attack the entire system. Such wireless networks must also be capable of hosting third-party applications that can provide an additional layer of security.
A robust communication network is the backbone of any modern mining site. Despite many challenges, it is possible to build a reliable and secure network that is flexible enough to suit the changing conditions of the mining sector.
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