Connecting mines to the digital world
Mining tech and telecom leaders discuss 5G digitalization Metal Tech News – March 31, 2021
Last updated 4/6/2021 at 4:38pm
In a recent webinar hosted by Ericsson, industry leaders from AT&T, Epiroc, and Ambra Solutions met to discuss the global impact and direction of connectivity for the mining industry. This fireside chat, titled Mining in a Connected World Digital Event – 5G Things Dialogues, included an introduction of Ericsson's Smart Mining Value Calculator intended to share the brunt of determining risk toward the fast-growing technology sector and a hesitant mining sector in adopting new technologies.
From its D-15 state-of-the-art innovation center in the heart of Silicon Valley, leaders from Sweden-based Ericsson met with AT&T Business Vice President Mobility and IoT Robert Boyanovsky, Epiroc Surface Division Vice President of Automation and Research and Development Tim Ledbetter and Ambra Solutions CEO Eric L'Heureux to discuss the shift to digitalization for the mining industry.
Starting off the webinar, Filip Mestanov, the industry and ecosystem manager for mining at Ericsson, brought forward a report Ericsson released last December detailing how next-gen connectivity can transform the mining industry.
The comprehensive 35-page report – Connected Mining: a guide to smart mining transformation with private cellular technology – outlines the employee safety, production efficiency, cost-saving, productivity and energy-efficiency benefits that private-network 5G-ready connectivity can deliver across five mining use cases.
Ericsson collaborated with researchers from management consultancy Arthur D. Little and experts from mining equipment companies Komatsu and Epiroc to help identify these categories:
1. Autonomous vehicles can significantly improve mine efficiency and safety and have a positive bottom-line impact.
2. Real-time condition monitoring optimizes uptime, improves mine safety and results in better running machinery.
3. Remote-controlled drilling rigs make drilling more precise, accurate and cost-efficient.
4. Unmanned drone inspections can monitor, inspect and map potentially dangerous underground areas.
5. Smart ventilation control can boost future efficiency, create a safer environment, optimize air quality and reduce ventilation costs.
The report estimates that the return-on-investment for both surface and underground mining operations could top 200% within 10 years.
To allow mining companies to get a sense of the rate of their return on investing into connectivity at their operations, Ericsson offers the Smart Mining Value Calculator, a tool that can easily determine the viability of adopting new technologies and can show the cost and savings by employing just a single category from the report.
By inputting specific data points such as number of equipment, the production capacity of the mine, or even the size of the mine, a business case can be built determining the most appropriate category from the report to pursue to most efficiently begin transforming a company toward further connectivity and streamline operations for improved productivity.
"We can build a business case tailored for your particular mine, so if you decide to implement one of these use cases or several of these use cases, how does the return of investment look like and then what is the payback after five and after 10 years," said Mestanov. "If you have more use cases implemented over the same infrastructure then the cost is shared between the use cases, the upfront cost required to enable them, so the more use cases you actually enable and implement then the better value you get out."
In a poll during the webinar asking attendees "Which mining use case do you foresee to have the most business potential?" real-time condition monitoring won with 37.8% and autonomous LHD came in second with 28.6%. Remote-controlled drilling rigs, smart ventilation controls and unmanned drone inspections followed in lower percentages at 15.3%, 10.2% and 8.1% respectively.
After the introduction, a fireside chat between the industry leaders at AT&T, Epiroc and Ambra began with Per Treven, director of ventures and partnership industries at Ericsson, who asked the panelists their views and experiences with connectivity and the advancing industrial digitalization.
AT&T's Boyanovsky said the impact due to the COVID-19 pandemic has created a demand for innovation toward connectivity as millions of people quarantined and isolated themselves, essentially cutting themselves off from the world and yet the world needed to continue moving.
"We started thinking about innovation, and creating that next digital transformation. It's really advanced over the last year, I think for us at AT&T, we've been on this journey for a while with our enterprise customers," he said. "We serve just about every single Fortune 1000 in some capacity, whether that's a fiber-based solution or wireless or IoT, our business is pretty vast and every single business, every single vertical is on a transformation, it's like transform or die."
While no mining company wants to be the first to try out new technologies, the need to implement fast and reliable wireless communication systems is becoming increasingly prevalent.
"The technology is accelerating, and we see the same thing with our mining partners, that the connectivity requirements in mining is also increasing at an exponential rate," Epiroc's Ledbetter responded to a question on the ability of 5G networks to solve the growing wireless communication demand in mining. "Today, the miners want all the mobile assets to be connected to the wireless network for dispatching reasons, for preventative maintenance systems and general streaming data requirements off of those mobile assets. That's really driving the need to have a higher bandwidth to support all the assets and the sensors that are being connected to the infrastructure in a mine."
He went on to discuss aspects of automation systems such as mission-critical networks, which is vital to sustaining a system that cannot have dark spots in the network or high latencies which prove almost catastrophic when a state-of-the-art automation system requires seamless connectivity to operate safely and stably.
"5G brings the technology to help ensure that the mission success, when you have this mission-critical connectivity, with the bandwidth, and the low latency, and the strong quality of service, those are huge factors for doing autonomous haulage or autonomous load dump. As well as 5G has the enhanced security and also handoffs, as a truck passes from one tower to the next the handoff is managed more seamlessly than it is in the wifi environment," finished Ledbetter.
Finally, Eric L'Heureux of Ambra Solutions, which has a particularly unique position of being a mining connectivity company out of Canada with a specific goal of digitalizing mines.
He was asked, "when meeting this (connectivity) demand from the mining industry, what do you see as the main challenge is when installing a new 5G dedicated network, and what do you see are some of the showstoppers?"
"Mining works 24/7, so having access to equipment, bringing a new technology means it's pretty limited, the time we can start production, so there's always a challenge. As you know, every new technology comes with risks, so in mining, nobody wants to be first. Everyone wants to be second. They want to make sure the technology has been tested and has been working well, and today I'm glad to say we are now here."
With Ambra Solutions already connecting more than 500 kilometers (310 miles) of underground mining tunnels with 4G and 5G technologies over the last 15 years, mining companies have plenty of case studies to choose from.
The discussion continued with several pertinent questions that further expounded on examples that these companies and many other industry leaders are taking to better implement connectivity, to better increase productivity, and to create an overall more safe and secure mine site.
A particular point to be mentioned was the challenge of connectivity to remote locations, those that are far from any towers or grids that can allow a site to "jack in" to a prebuilt infrastructure, with the experience from the panelists most of the circumstances seemed geared toward a self-sustained intranet that would send data outside at predetermined intervals, while still allowing an ecosystem of connectivity within the range of the mine.
Overall, the webinar introduced new tools and ideas while reinforcing old concepts and plans that have been gearing the mining sector toward digitalization for many years, and with the necessity level of a global pandemic lighting a figurative fire under the world's pants, the markets are shifting at incredible speeds to keep up and keep ahead of a world going further digital.