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Wireless networks in mining: A case for broad transformation

  • The need for real time communications, advanced data analytics and Internet of Things’ (IoT) enabled devices, are calling into question the capabilities of existing wireless networks and if these networks can support the future operational needs of miners.
  • Over the last decade, traditional wireless technologies have been introduced including complex networks of Wi-Fi, microwave and satellite technology to provide connectivity across the pit-to-port supply chain.
  • As mining organisations assess their future operational needs, LTE which can provide the right balance between scalability, bandwidth and reach, should be considered. LTE can help to ensure the capability of the wireless network is not compromised across mine sites and their associated transport networks.
  • Adoption of LTE has the potential to enable a new paradigm of innovation in the mining industry, including driving efficiencies, improving safety and enabling better business intelligence.

Together with contributing editor Paula Rujak, Alan Hindes discusses how a combination of the advanced applications, a greater need for advanced video monitoring and the Internet of Things is driving a transformational change in mining operations.

Today’s mines and mining operations are more network reliant than ever. Things that used to be manually controlled, or consisted of a closed circuit system – from trucks to temperature sensors – are now being fitted with wireless network interfaces where data is transferred automatically to and from the wider area network. This technology, commonly known as the ‘Internet of Things’, or simply IoT, is changing the way mining operations are conducted and helping to drive efficiencies.

However, for mining companies to fully embrace the future of full IoT automation, future wireless networks will need to support the thousands of connected devices that collate and transmit data, with differing requirements on bandwidth, latency, speed and power consumption. 

Constructive worker on mining site giving directions

These networks may also need to handle mission-critical communications or scale to many thousands of device connections, as well as reach over the expanse of a mine site and its transport network.

As a result of these developments, mining companies will need to upgrade their architecture and operating models which is driving the shift towards operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) integration. These may include increasing the amount of actionable data gathered from mobile field workers, equipment and operational processes; open platforms and network connectivity that facilitate the integration and sharing of critical data across an organisation; and rapid advances in asset and work management applications.

This OT-IT integration will help remove the fragmented view that resources companies have traditionally had of their supply chain and provide greater operational visibility to manage critical assets, logistics and planning. With the right approach to analytics, quality data will mean better decision-making and improved operational efficiencies.Carrier grade LTE networks can provide the capability and flexibility to meet these requirements in a cost efficient way.

How IoT is transforming mining

A study published by ChainLink Research identified five areas of mining operations that will be significantly affected by IoT technologies – safety, driverless trucks, process automation, data visualisation and predictive maintenance.

ChainLink analyst Bill McBeath believes the IoT can revolutionise traditional processes for responding to failures by continuously monitoring equipment for temperature, pressure and vibration. By analysing the data sets obtained, it can predict the failure rate of components and perform the appropriate maintenance where it is needed. This reduces the cost of unnecessary scheduled maintenance and the potential danger of equipment failures in the field.

In addition to operational and safety benefits, IoT technology will be responsible for a wider trend in the economy where manual and skilled industrial jobs move to skilled IT-based jobs, McBeath says. In the case of mining, truck drivers are already being replaced by operations control centre operators.

Surveyor assessing mining site

Alan Hindes, Global Industry Executive, Mining, Oil and Gas at Telstra, says IoT, combined with OT and IT integration, is driving the strategic thinking in most companies he works with.

“The need for real time monitoring and analysis of data in the mining supply chain as well as across health and safety practices will see more and more devices connected. Not only does this drive productivity improvement through efficiency in operations, but it will also allow you to have your best people where they can impact the business – in your operational headquarters rather than at the mine site,” Hindes says.

Manufacturers are now integrating hundreds of sensors on equipment like trucks, as well as on personnel, to measure everything from temperature, pressure and oil quality, sending an alert whenever an anomaly occurs. In the case of personnel, the sensors can measure such things as biometrics.

Hindes says in rail transportation for example, sensors have been used for some time to detect anomalies such as overheating bearings or increased noise levels which indicate if a wheel is out of its operating specifications. Components can then be replaced before a costly failure occurs.

“There are many safety benefits of IoT. Explosives can be wirelessly detonated and the sensors can do real-time sampling of gas levels, ore deposits or grade estimates,” he says.

Middle aged man standing in front of mining trucks with radio

Connected mines need first-rate wireless

Traditional wireless technologies have been introduced over time and on an ad hoc basis to meet emerging requirements, with very little to no integration between them. This not only makes interoperability extremely cumbersome or impossible, but also results in divestment of capital expenditure and an increase in operational expenditure. Adding to this already complex environment is that in many cases OT and IT are seen as different requirements and managed in different departments.

There are two factors converging that indicate now is the time to reconsider how future mine communications are managed.

  1. Reduction in capital spending – the resources sector is emerging from a period of sustained growth and as a result, now faces challenging economic conditions, with the emphasis moving from capital expansion to production. Previous high commodity prices saw a ‘production-at-any-cost’ mentality during the boom, resulting in a marked decline in productivity with a realisation now, that a stepped change in innovation is required to improve this decline
  2. Development of a global LTE standard – the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project) has developed standards for 4G Long Term Evolution LTE. This provides a common approach to bring control to the IT office and better alignment of application introductions

That being considered, is there still a role for Wi-Fi communications to play in the modern mine? And can it accommodate the future needs of autonomous operations?

The answer to this lies in the future of LTE and how it addresses connectivity, service management and data analytics in broadband. Overtime, we believe this will see Wi-Fi and mesh marginalised.

Many tier one miners in Australia are looking to LTE to provide a single communications platform for in-pit and pit-to-port communications. They have moved from looking to assess the most appropriate technology, to determining the best way to implement LTE. In contrast, in the US it is the smaller operators that are adopting new technologies for shale oil activity. This has led to a rapid adoption of LTE technology in the US1.

The changing connectivity landscape

Many miners are looking to automation and the cost and productivity benefits that come with that. This is a change from the expansion mode they operated in until recently. We believe LTE is the communications technology to facilitate this. Mobile broadband communication, the increasing ability to connect everything and the need for business analytics is driving transformational change in the resources sector. This is supported by resounding feedback from Australian companies and recent Frost & Sullivan research, that communications at the mine site is an essential component of a modern mine1. However, before we can talk about analytics, we need to be able to capture sensor data at the mine site. Every person, each device and all critical elements of the supply chain need a network that is capable of handling the future of IoT. Communications infrastructure is critical to this.

LTE meets three key requirements of this communications infrastructure:

  1. Mobile broadband speeds – Telstra has recently launched a 600Mbps service and demonstrated the world’s first 1Gbps capability on a live network
  2. Telstra is proposing to provide integrated voice communications via voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) and push-to-talk (PTT) as part of our LTE roadmap. This will include mission critical push-to-talk capabilities
  3. The ability to connect everything, underpins the removal of people from some processes

Having a secure, standards-based platform that implements reusable APIs (application programming interface) cannot be underestimated. As a result of such a system, opportunities are created to develop an ecosystem with economies of scale for devices, applications and analytics. The 3GPP standards enable this and continually evolve to specifically address key functionality around latency, reliability, device density and traffic volumes.

The future of mining technology

The technology landscape is continually evolving at an ever increasing rate. To remain at the forefront, the industry must evolve at the same pace. Some key aspects of global LTE development that are expected to evolve significantly in the coming years are:

  1. Wireless connectivity will deliver:

Higher data rates and lower latency for applications such as video and tactile internet

Wide area, low power solutions for applications such as machine-to-machine communications and logistics tracking

Broadcast services for applications such as device firmware updates and digital signage updatesproximity services for applications such as device-to-device and vehicle-to-vehicle communications for intelligent transport systems

Low latency and high reliability for systems control and data acquisition

  1. Delivery of mission critical push-to-talk on LTE to augment or replace two-way radio solutions
  2. The use of data analytics to make intelligible business and operational decisions including machine type learning
  3. Security moving from the perimeter of networks to being integral to every component of the network

LTE is fundamentally a data network that delivers the speeds mining companies need in addition to video, which is important for equipment monitoring.

“For example, driverless trucks and trains still need ‘eyes and ears’ so video is a crucial service,” Hindes says.

Mining executives must also evaluate the cost and efficiency benefits of not managing multiple Wi-Fi networks across their operations.

“LTE is not a panacea for everyone and there will always be a number of wireless technologies on a mine site and customers should select the right technology for the right application,” Hindes says. “For critical applications, LTE has a number of advantages. Vendors now support more IP-connected devices and a gateway or aggregation device can be used to link Wi-Fi and satellite to LTE.”

Cranes in construction site

The fast lane to dedicated network capability

In response to the requirement to provide effective, timely, affordable and equitable mobile broadband, Telstra has developed the LTE Advanced Network for Enterprise Services (Telstra LANES®). This approach is achieved by partnering with commercial carriers to provide dedicated spectrum capacity. This capacity is augmented with priority access and preferential data treatment on the commercial carrier’s spectrum, when additional capacity is required. By using carrier infrastructure, you gain the benefits of a multibillion dollar investment – without worrying about continual maintenance, updates, repairs and site leases. This eliminates risky investments in an area where technology is continually evolving and enables you to scale your network up and down to match your project life cycles. Telstra LANES® technology is now multi award winning on the global arena having won the World Mobile Congress Award in 2015 for LTE innovation and the 2015 Award for Best Urban Improvement.

So where does that leave Wi-Fi, mesh and private networks? The choice is a relatively simple one.

Why struggle with continually introducing and integrating new non-licensed technologies such as Wi-Fi, when introducing a Wi-Fi router to handle a specific application could impact several other applications? Why ‘leave it to chance’ using capability over an unlicensed spectrum, where there is no control over interference from other devices – such as a video sending device – no collision sensing and scheduling. LTE solves this where command and control is held in a central organisational location and new applications are implemented in line with IT testing practices.

LTE is starting to show traction in technology leading geographies such as the US and Australia1 and the opportunity exists for the rest of the world to adapt just as quickly.

How LTE meets mining requirements

Many in the mining industry have concerns around the roadmap for Wi-Fi and its ability to support the volumes of data required to monitor operational infrastructure remotely, including the emergence of video. Today mine sites utilise disparate networks to fulfil connectivity requirements with multiple Wi-Fi systems on-site, often supporting different proprietary applications. This often results in productivity inefficiencies. There are cost benefits that can be realised by rationalising infrastructure and consolidating these onto a single platform.

At Telstra, we have the view that the industry is also looking for a seamless supply chain from pit-to-port, just as in the manufacturing sector where all points of the supply chain are integrated. This is where LTE can further provide what Wi-Fi cannot, a ubiquitous and seamless pit-to-port view of the supply chain. In addition, as mines are often not a self-contained ecosystem, staff also need to move from the pit, to rail, to port and so the ability to maintain seamless connectivity along the route offers real benefits.

In consideration of your mine site, there are three LTE deployment options:

  1. Private LTE network
  2. Utilising a commercial LTE network and the subsequent benefits of roaming
  3. Utilising a Telstra LANES® solution whether in Australia or in your local area with a chosen commercial carrier

As more critical applications are deployed and devices become more intelligent, the ability to manage these devices through the network from a possible remote point becomes more important. With the use of commercial operators a national network capability can be provided as seen by our Australia-wide national network, utilising a common core network, enabling seamless mobility.

If a private LTE network is deployed, then roaming arrangements can be utilised to roam from your private network to the commercial network when you leave your mine site. It should be noted however that communications will not be seamless as you change networks. If building a private network, then partnering with a commercial carrier for its provision will provide benefits in the ability to roam and to transition to a commercial solution over time, as technology advancements continue.

Whether you require mobile broadband or a low powered, wide area network, LTE can meet all these needs and has a strong global development roadmap. This offers a level of security that as your needs for data grow, your technology will continue to advance to drive and accommodate the growing need for automation and provision of data for predictive analytics.

Compared to a private network build, Telstra has the knowledge and tools to ensure our networks remain optimised, with strong security defences and maintained at a premium level at all times. These elements are essential ingredients for the deployment of critical applications in mining.

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1Frost & Sullivan, Market Potential and Strategic Direction for Telstra in the Mining, Oil & Gas (MOG) Industries, August 2015

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