Enabling mines to leverage digital transformation
The mining sector can benefit in multiple ways from digitisation, but doing so requires a strong and resilient network, designed to be fit-for-purpose.
Mining, like every other industry, is beginning to grasp the enormous benefits of digital transformation. Artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of things (IOT) and advanced analytics, among other technologies, are demonstrating their efficiency, productivity and safety advantages. However, for the sector to truly realise the full benefits of digitisation, connectivity is critical – something that is not always easy to achieve in the remote regions and generally high-stress and hazardous environments that are part and parcel of this sector.
Being situated in generally remote regions, mines inevitably lack infrastructure, so just enabling connectivity similar to that found in urban and built-up areas can be quite tough. Even in a situation where the odd GSM tower is found within range, these cannot deliver the capacity or connectivity reliably and consistently required to utilise these new digital technologies.
According to Gary Woolley, Executive: Solutions at Comsol, many factors can have an adverse effect on connectivity. Everything from dust, heat and moisture, through to the mineral itself that is being mined, can have an impact.
“In other words, it is imperative to truly understand the environment if you are to design a connectivity solution that will work. At the same time, the solution has to meet the specific requirements of the mine, its operations and strategic business needs properly,” he says.
“This usually requires a substantial last-mile ‘pipe’ that offers resilience via multiple pathways and technologies, and which is governed by a strong and effective service level agreement (SLA). Additional resilience needs to be built into the WiFi network canopy that services the mine, which is critical to operations running autonomous processes. Other factors and challenges that need to be considered is load-shedding – which can also negatively affect the mine’s network.”
Woolley suggests that a good starting point would be to run a thorough audit to understand what technologies are already in place, and what can be added to significantly improve the mine’s capabilities. For example, one might look to install a campus WiFi network for employees to use for handheld devices and voice traffic, along with a lower power IOT network for security, safety and compliance purposes.
“It is important to build a network that can scale and spread over time, and that everything built on a campus network is able to cater for such growth, including the backbone. Building a redundant and resilient backbone on a mine will ultimately involve a basket of different technologies – the key is for this to be backed by a reliable backbone and a high-level SLA.”
“Proper connectivity also includes ensuring power redundancy, as well as the utilisation of the correct end-user devices to suit the environment. Many devices don’t operate well in conditions of excessive heat, dust or moisture, for example.”
But in the end, he continues, it really comes down to having the right infrastructure and partner, in the right place, such as masts sited strategically to offer the widest WiFi coverage.
“Occupational health and safety (OHS) is of paramount importance in the mining sector, so a critical aim of any connectivity solution will be to ensure client applications are enabled. This would include IOT sensors that track people or machines and report back to the operations centre, to keep employees safer and to prevent accidents,” states Woolley.
More and more, he adds, mines are embracing technology and an effective, well-serviced WiFi canopy solution not only improves communications but also enable the operations centre to access increasingly large sets of data. This, in turn, can be rapidly analysed and used to improve efficiencies and increase productivity in real-time.
“In the end, it is about enabling mines to leverage technology to truly change the way they do things, from safety and security to OHS and protecting employees health, and on to driving efficiencies across the entire production value chain and even understanding, in real-time, the challenges that need to be overcome. Achieving all of the above boils down to collecting and analysing data effectively – and this requires a strong and resilient network over which this data can run, backed by the assurance of a solid partners’ SLA,” concludes Woolley.