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By A.J. Roan
For Metal Tech News 

Smart mining begins with communications

High-speed wireless, IoT open new possibilities for mining

 

Last updated 2/4/2020 at 2:14pm

Hecla Mining Greens Creek silver mine Alaska underground wireless network

Judy Patrick; Hecla Mining Company

A remote operator uses a tablet connected to an underground wireless network at Hecla Mining's Greens Creek silver-zinc-lead-gold mine in Southeast Alaska.

High-speed networking and interconnected devices, which form a unified whole, are opening a new realm of possibilities for consumer and company alike.

As the world continues to become more digitally interconnected, the value of companies and their success can almost be directly linked to how quickly they adapt and utilize newer technologies.

We can see remnants of bygone eras still lingering in many industries, including mining, in an era where the speed of development of new technologies has only increased.

For companies to survive today, a need to adjust this ever-changing digital landscape is becoming more vital and those that refuse such change may find themselves left behind.

The mining industry is always seeking that edge for innovation and maximum efficiency.

Utilizing the latest communications and automation technologies, miners have come far from shovels and pans to optimization of operations with robots and computers.

It is with a seemingly unlikely technological candidate, however, that we may see the new direction of all future industries.

IoT connects

At the center of the digital transformation of mining and other heavy industries lies the Internet of Things (IoT), a system of interrelated computing devices, both mechanical and digital.

This means a system that operates and has the capability to transfer data over networks without human-to-human or even human-to-computer interaction.

These IoT devices are already becoming prevalent in our day-to-day lives.

Thermostats, light fixtures, home security and security cameras can make an interconnected system that operates on its own without much interaction.

Certainly, we can influence and affect these consumer-based products, however, the capability for this system to change based on learned settings is unique.

For example, if you have never used a smart home system thermostat, it has the ability of learning your desired temperature over prolonged use and will change it accordingly.

Too hot while you sleep? Too cold during the day? The software is designed to automatically adjust based on your preferred temperature patterns.

While this is a very neat concept, it is no J.A.R.V.I.S. à la Tony Stark, but the technology is moving along that track.

IoT means devices recognizing other devices, sharing the accumulated data between them and conveying the most pertinent of that data.

This allows a hands-free operation and while all the devices are independent yet interconnected you still have control.

So, beyond a home being equipped with all manner of fancy gadgetry, what role does wireless technology have in underground and open-pit mines?

Connecting mines

More than just computers and cellphones, technology is becoming more closely related to a concept of use.

For the mining industry we have begun to see autonomous equipment, remote-controlled or monitored safely from an off-site location.

And even predictive maintenance, digital systems built into equipment to monitor wear and tear and possible mechanical emergency situations.

Basically, anything involved onsite being monitored and controlled safely and precisely. All while the data is being transmitted wirelessly and connected to a centralized location that allows for reference and inspections almost instantaneously.

All of this seems incredible, and it is, but how does a company even begin to utilize all this technology?

That is where the interest towards high-speed networking started. Most of the leading mining companies have already led the way in investments in high-speed wireless communication systems.

A recent survey by GlobalData, a London, England-based analytics and research firm found that 61 percent of mine sites in the world have begun investing in high-speed communications systems.

Even private LTE or 5G networks are being utilized in mines, as the growth of this investment has increased from 55 percent in 2018.

Now, small and mid-tier mining companies have begun to follow the trend. According to GlobalData, 53 percent of small-scale mines are expecting to make investments in high-speed networks over the next two years.

This is quickly becoming the highest share of any of the mining technologies invested and utilized.

"Further investment in communication systems is critical for mines looking to extend levels of automation or deployment of Internet of Things (IoT) devices. This is driving the rising use of private LTE networks and 5G use within the mining sector as it seeks continued improvements in productivity through higher utilization," said David Kurtz, director of analysis, mining and construction at GlobalData.

Clearly it has not gone unnoticed the importance of communication systems, with many mine sites around the globe making significant investments in fully implemented mine communication systems.

The absolute necessity of high-speed networking is a given as the transmission of information is paramount to all things on this planet.

As mining companies continue to expand in their use of high-speed networks and further equipment is developed to operate under the umbrella of these networks the potential can be clearly seen.

Future possibilities are already in development with many companies leading the way into digital optimization.

Digital transformation of mining

There are several aspects of information that correlate directly to the power of today's technology and its usefulness to mining – growth of data storage, information transmission and computation.

The growth in speed and power on all three fronts, working in tandem with software, has created powerful tools at our disposal.

You have no doubt heard the amusing comparison between modern cellphones and the Apollo 11 spacecraft.

Completely overshadowing the computer systems that piloted Apollo 11, a device we hold in our hands today has more computational power than the Apollo Guidance Computer used to bring Man into space in 1969!

Take a moment to envision a mine utilizing all this technology easily and seamlessly.

From a centralized location, a command center if you will, the administrator can see all the devices connected to the network. Much like an entertainment system in your home.

The network is private and used solely by the company. It has been established through a large cellular tower that is connected to satellite, most likely contracted from a large carrier.

Through this network, the administrator can see the status of all the devices, like on your phone, the battery level, or on your computer, the temperature of your CPU or the space remaining on your hard drive. All the data of its condition can be seen at a glance.

Through IoT devices, alerts or data visualization can be pushed to the command center or connected to devices, such has tablets, to give real-time updates, without a single input from a person.

We see push notifications daily on our personal electronic devices. A system that has adapted this simple method in tandem with automated devices can create a continuous system of information.

With the established high-speed network, multiple devices can be connected, like the internet at home, and through it control access as well as determine what is connected.

Mine sites have begun utilizing drones for survey and calculations, these would be integrated as a device on the network and through possible future advancements may even become fully autonomous.

Self-driving haul trucks can be utilized with pre-defined GPS courses to automatically navigate haul roads and intersections and to know actual locations, speeds and directions of other vehicles at all times.

Outside of the automation and machinery, management of employees would also become more efficient as all factors for performance, health and safety can be integrated into an algorithm to best promote operations.

The system administrator could track hours and determine fatigue or determine the location of someone in the event of an accident.

All of this sounds rather far-fetched and quite like science-fiction, however, these concepts exist and are being integrated into a cohesive whole at mines around the globe.

Resolute autonomous mining equipment control center gold mine Africa

Resolute Mining Ltd.

The wireless network at Resolute's Syama gold mine in Africa allows operators to monitor the autonomous underground mining equipment from this futuristic control center.

Today an Australia-based company, Resolute Mining, has begun operating such a mine.

Their aim is to create a fully operational, fully autonomous facility. This could verily be called a robotic mine of the future.

From loaders that scoop up material, rigs that drill holes and blasting of bedrock deep underground, to the trucks that weave their way through tunnels to deliver gold-rich ore to the processing facility on the surface, every piece of mining equipment is fully autonomous.

This does not mean that the human element will be phased out, as the onsite operations will be handling the onsite work. It will take skilled hands and even more skilled management to keep such a facility running.

We are seeing the future, in small pockets in industries around the world. People are taking the chance to create new methods and in so doing pave the way for others to do the same.

 

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