Base Camp Digital Presenters: Opportunities and challenges with rolling out 5G networks in underground mines

Oct. 5, 2020
Digital upgrades are enabling newfound efficiencies underground.

By Marc Jadoul, strategic marketing director at Nokia, and Andreas Simoncic, business line manager of automation and digitalization for Northern Europe at Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology

The case for innovation in the mining industry has never been more compelling. Driven by the need to reinvent operations, increase safety and sustainability, and optimize productivity and efficiency, investment in Industry 4.0 solutions has steeply risen over the past years. 

The reward of digital transformation can be substantial. Advances in technologies like the IIoT, artificial intelligence and virtual reality are enabling mining companies to optimize decision making, automate manual processes and replace manual operations with fully autonomous systems, all while enabling teams to fully track people and assets, which is essential for worker safety.

But to get the best out these technologies, having high-performing wireless connectivity in mining areas is essential to the various digital applications they enable. Unfortunately, many mines still rely on legacy networks that weren’t created to meet the demands of ultra-broadband and mission-critical use cases.

Incidentally, most of us carry much better wireless technology in our pockets today. Used for a decade by mobile operators worldwide, 4G/LTE cellular technology has all the features and characteristics required by the vast majority of business-critical and mission-critical mining applications. The next generation of cellular, 5G, is also beginning to roll out, and it will support even the most extreme applications. 

For a few years now, these capabilities have been available to enterprises through industrial-grade private wireless. To make Industry 4.0 work for mining companies and enable the automation applications that will deliver results for their operations, mining companies need pervasive wireless voice and data connectivity—above and underground, from pit to port. 

An industrial-grade private wireless network provides a single infrastructure for fast, reliable and secure data, mission-critical push-to-talk/push-to-video (MC-PTT/PTV) communications, and real-time video transmission in a mining setting that is characterized by highly challenging deployment conditions. This is particularly true in underground mining environments with continuously changing networks of tunnels that pose unique challenges compared to open-air outdoor sites.

Underground upgrades

Whereas surface mines have a relatively large space available for infrastructure deployment, the confined space in underground mines introduces extra complexity. In underground environments, the communications network needs to deliver reliable wireless voice and data communication across ‘blind’ production areas to support miners and machines that are working together in tight space, where all activities and communications are limited by narrow drifts and galleries. 

The majority of Nokia’s mining customers are still opting for 4.9G solutions. 5G is at the beginning of its broad adoption for clients’ industrial journeys. Clients know that 5G is around the corner, and that the upgrade from 4.9Gwill be straightforward. As a matter of fact, more than 85% of digital mining applications can already run on 4.9G today. 5G will add even more capabilities—more bandwidth for (ultra-) high-definition video services while reducing latency that is needed for real-time tele-remote control of robots and drones. 

That’s why Sandvik, supplier of automation and digitalization for underground mining, has partnered with Nokia on implementing a private 5G Standalone (SA) network in their test-mine facility in Tampere, Finland. The goal is to have the capability to ensure and demonstrate that Sandvik’s products and systems are compatible with 5G technology and make them ready for rollout to their customers’ mining operations.

Sandvik’s 5G standalone network implementation in the test mine is in its early stages; the plan is to gradually expand the network. Once the 5G SA network is fully implemented, it will enable the company to showcase an entirely new range of game-changing products and capabilities, with the ability to run several different applications over the network. With 5G, Sandvik will be able to reserve a certain capacity from the bandwidth to specific applications, resulting in predictable performance and improved reliability.

Of course, Rome wasn’t built in a day. There is still some work to be done in 5G standardization. 5G R16 was just finalized last July and, together with R17 (planned for 2022), will bring critical machine-connectivity features such as ultra-low latency and time-sensitive networking. These next two releases are critical steps for Industry 4.0 applications, as they will bring significant benefits for private wireless, enabling the bulk of the 15% of applications not yet possible today on private 4.9G. The R18 standard, which is due in 2023, should bring the final piece of the puzzle, with massive IoT connectivity—the successor to LTE-M and NB-IoT.

The availability of 5G spectrum may be a (temporary) showstopper for some countries. While a few markets have started releasing vertical spectrum for 5G, it is still a small number of countries vs. the countries that have released LTE/4.9G vertical spectrum. At this point in time, public mobile-service providers are also less willing to lease their limited 5G spectrum for private wireless networks.

Another important success factor is the presence of an industrial chipset and device ecosystem that supports the 5G standard. For the past few months, you have been able to purchase a high-end 5G smartphone on the consumer market, but it is still pretty hard to find a rugged 5G handset or IoT device that is built to operate in a harsh mining environment. 

Partnerships and ecosystems are the motor powering innovation and new business opportunities; they are essential for connectivity players like Nokia when developing solutions. This is why it’s fantastic that Sandvik is taking a global leadership role on developing 5G solutions in mining and is deploying Nokia’s technology in their test mine in Tampere. 

For Nokia, it’s a real advantage to work with a global leader in mine automation and digitalization. The combination of Nokia’s private wireless-network technology and its Digital Automation Cloud, along with Sandvik’s leading-edge solutions, is creating a world-class opportunity to deliver unique value to the global mining industry.

Want more? Join Marc and Andreas during the on-demand version of their Base Camp Digital webinar. Click here to learn more and register.