South Africa has one of the most abundant mineral reserves in the world. Different estimates suggest that the country could be sitting on $2.5-$5 trillion worth of mineral reserves. Mining, therefore, is an essential economic activity in the country with the sector contributing 6.8% of the country’s GDP.
The country is facing many challenges in meeting the vast potential in the mining sector. Falling reserves and margins, outdated mining technology and increasing mining-related accidents have primarily held back the industry from growing at the desired pace.
As the reserves on the upper surfaces are declining, the mining companies have to dig deeper to get to the new deposits. Deep underground mining increases the risk of fatal accidents. The country’s mining industry has already seen the number of such accidents increasing. Last year, 86 people lost lives in mining-related accidents compared to 73 in 2016.
Falling commodity prices and high environmental standards have also proved to be a challenge for the industry. All these reinforce the need for the industry to adopt automation to increase its operational efficiency and bring down costs.
LTE Comes To Aid
The Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology can help the mining industry in not just improving their operational efficiency, thus reducing cost and increasing profitability, but also raising the safety standards.
The industry has so far been using the Land Mobile Radio (LMR) based communication system. The biggest flaw with the LMR-based system is that it transmits only voice, and does not allow transmission of images, videos and locations. These capabilities are important in case of an accident, emergency or natural disaster.
With its ultra high-speed connectivity and low latency, LTE can provide connectivity to the most distant corners of the mines. It helps in tracking people and vehicle with an accuracy of 1 cm. In a way, LTE is the best available technology for automation and digitization of the mining activities.
However, the LTE solutions for mines are usually private networks unlike the LTE for retail customers. Retail networks are built for millions of subscribers spread across the country, and therefore, retail subscribers may face call drops and network gaps.
A private network, on the other hand, is deployed for a smaller number of people and over a smaller area. Private LTE networks are, therefore, customized as per the requirements of a particular company, and hence they are more resilient, secure, and reliable.
One significant advantage of LTE is that it is interoperable with the existing technologies used by the mining industry, making it easier for the companies to move from their current systems to the latest LTE Technology.
The mining industry across the world is fast realizing the benefits of LTE and a good portion of its CapEx is being funneled towards upgradation to LTE systems. The recent ABI Research report says that the global mining industry is likely to spend around US$2.9 billion or 1.5% of the total mining capital expenditure on setting up the private wireless broadband network by 2022. A significant percentage of this amount is going to be spent on deploying LTE in mines.
LTE Boost To Automation
The mining industry has a lot to gain from the LTE technology as it helps them in automating key functions to gain efficiencies in production and operations. Mining under challenging terrains, tough environmental compliances, and falling margins make it necessary for the mining industry to reduce operational costs. Like in most industries, automation can be a good way of bringing down cost. Apart from cost efficiency, automation and digitization also make the mining safer by enabling real-time remote monitoring of the mines.
Mining is a labor-intensive industry, and with automation dependency on the workforce will come down, and operations can be run round the clock, thus increasing productivity.
Towards a Safer, Smarter Mining
Concepts like Bring-Your-Own-Coverage (BYOC), powered by LTE technology, are further helping the mining industry to take network connectivity to the remotest corners of the mine. In the BYOC, the LTE base-station can be easily deployed in a number of places, including miner’s backpack or a truck ensuring connectivity in the difficult-to-reach areas of the mine. The self-configuration and self-organization features of BYOC ensure that the connectivity is not impacted in case fixed base stations are moved or shifted for blasting.
BYOC is leveraging the benefits of LTE technology in making the communication networks inside the mines much more reliable and secure.
By putting the LTE base station in a miner’s backpack or a truck, BYOC ensures that the even in the deepest and farthest corner of the mine the network connectivity remains strong. This way it provides real-time access to the miner’s location, a crucial piece of information at the time of a rescue mission. By customizing the network reach, BYOC further brings down response time in an emergency. Due to its features like self-optimization and traffic prioritization, an LTE-powered BYOC network can be quickly deployed and ensures that the user is always connected.
BYOC also supports the digitization and automation efforts by connecting IoT sensors and devices to collect data. Many IoT applications like emergency notification system, remote management of mining machinery, air quality monitoring and access control systems make the management and tracking of mines more efficient.
The LTE technology is revolutionizing the mining industry by changing the way mines are managed and monitored. By boosting the digitization and automation process in the pits, LTE is making the industry more cost-efficient and safer.
Faster adoption of LTE-powered BYOC technology in South Africa will help the country in realizing the real potential of its mineral reserves.
By Lux Maharaj, Director – Africa Sales, Parallel Wireless