Independent communications consultant Dr Jan Noordhof discusses the future of communications in the Mining industry.
As the scope of the industry’s communications requirements increase, many mines employ an expanding, but disparate mix of technologies. Over many decades, mines have employed phones, bell signalling, leaky feeder systems, through-the-earth communications, VOIP, WiFi, RFID, and cellular to name a few.
Unfortunately, more often than not, they remain discrete, proprietary, and incapable of the integration that will provide the gateway to a digital future.
But change is coming. Communication requirements that improve safety, enhance monitoring, and increase automation and remote control are driving solutions that offer massive data throughput and significantly lower latency.
The mine of the future will continue to utilize a mixture of communications technologies, but to integrate their operations, companies must also integrate the communications that coordinate them. While no one expects one seamless system to combine all the current technologies, it is possible to unify them. Digital communications technologies are run and managed within an IP-based infrastructure, so can be unified to form a single, converged network.
Today’s mining communications are geographically constrained around individual mines. However, the mine of the future must fulfill requirements not envisioned when today’s systems were planned; integrated, company-wide communications across the entire reach of its operations – not just from pit to port, but across multiple field sites, and city-based corporate offices. Integration will require backhaul to match the company’s coverage, latency, and capacity requirements.
Remote monitoring and control will dump huge quantities of data onto networks, so that sensor analytics applications can statistically process and feed them into Big Data analytics. Operational management will act on the results to track mine performance, alter schedules, modify operations, and track finances. This will require integrated, wide-area, heterogeneous communications that can support high bandwidth, high speed voice and data communications.
Mining wireless broadband
Both Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton are installing large-scale LTE wireless broadband networks, using the same technology that powers today’s 4G cellular phone systems. LTE offers many features for the mine of the future: high data capacity, low latency, excellent resilience, and exceptional spectrum usage. In particular, LTE can handle diverse data demands (e.g. field reporting, dispatching) and can prioritize traffic based on Quality of Service (QoS).
LTE could potentially replace the WiFi mesh networks that currently provide wireless data communications above and below ground. Mesh networks pass data from one device to another, so devices that are too far apart can still exchange data via a chain of intermediate devices. This pass-the-parcel technique works well when devices talk frequently to their WiFi neighbors (e.g. sensor networks), and when many are clustered in the same location. But each device must be within range of its neighbor, and performance depends on length of the chain connecting any two devices; longer chains mean slower connections.
However, LTE cannot do everything. Cell sizes are small compared to LMR, requiring many more towers to achieve the same coverage. If coverage is required over a large geographical area, data performance may be a brilliant 30 Mbps next to a tower, but drops off rapidly to a miserly 0.25 Mbps as an LTE terminal user moves to the cell boundary (typically around 10 km from the tower). Unlike radio, bandwidth can vary, depending on network loading at any given time. Near a coverage boundary, applications may not always work. And when network traffic is especially heavy (e.g. during an emergency) some applications may fail altogether.
If, say, seven or eight emergency generators all need to communicate to an operations center rather than to each other, then wide-area cellular is worth the extra cost. Above ground, LMR remains popular for voice communications because it is highly reliable, has excellent coverage, SMS data capability and is largely cost effective. (Below ground, LMR communicates via leaky feeders.) Existing industrial monitor and control systems use purpose-built sensors and other proprietary components. Above and below ground, wireless data communications are commonly provided over WiFi mesh systems.
As other industries like public safety have have found, it is a good idea to pair LTE with LMR, to guarantee coverage and to provide redundancy. LMR manufacturers have come on board with products (including intrinsically-safe subscriber units) that support digital LMR as well as LTE. New technologies may emerge, but most earlier technologies will remain relevant, and are maintained, advanced and upgraded by manufacturers. Rather than developing a single, ideal technology, the future of mining communications lies in the smart integration of multiple new and existing tools.
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