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Going underground? Take the network with you!

Going underground? Take the network with you!

Digital transformation and automation can deliver big rewards for mining companies. Advances in the industrial internet of things (IIoT), artificial intelligence, machine learning, and augmented and virtual reality make it possible to optimize decision making, track assets and monitor people to ensure safe conditions. As we’ve written in previous Nokia blog posts, critical and reliable communications are the foundation for mine digitalization, automation and autonomous operation — especially pervasive and dependable wireless connectivity.

But establishing truly flexible, reliable high-speed networks presents some unique challenges for below-ground environments compared to open-pit sites.

Underground mines need flexible coverage

Underground mining environments are characterized by thick rock walls, confined spaces and a continuously increasing network of tunnels and galleries — all of which make network planning, design and deployment complex. They also make connectivity crucial: since conditions limit visibility for people and systems, fast, reliable data transfer is vitally important.

Other geological, geotechnical and operational factors such as extraction sequence optimization restrictions and requirements make it essential for connectivity to be ubiquitous. Different teams may operate in different sections of a mine simultaneously, or move between areas from week to week. As more automated processes come online, they need to be enabled even when workers aren’t present. Connectivity has to be everywhere.

It’s a tall order for any network: deliver flexible and reliable wireless data and voice communication across a continuously changing geography in a variety of harsh production environments — around corners and through walls, despite possible interference — so that automated processes and equipment can function seamlessly and workers stay connected.

A combination of radio technologies may be required to ensure always and everywhere coverage: small cells, micro remote radio heads (RRH), distributed antenna arrays (DAS) and radiating cables (also known as leaky feeders) — often needing integrating with existing UHF/VHF systems. Network architecture design and radio planning are key to successful implementation.

Harsh conditions demand a rock-solid communications solution

Industrial-grade private wireless provides a single infrastructure for reliable, secure voice, data and video communications and automated applications in underground mines with low latency and high-speed data transfer.

While coverage of a single antenna is often limited to a section or a gallery, the power of the 4.9G/LTE or 5G signal makes it convenient for supporting caving, room-and-pillar and long wall mining methods as well as in-mine mission-critical and emergency voice and video communications.

Virtually any underground application requiring wireless connectivity can run on private wireless, including autonomous vehicles, robotic processes and smart sensors — even applications that could be served by cabled connections, such as HDTV camera feeds. This is because LTE and 5G have the necessary bandwidth while also being able to support low-power sensor and IoT networks, and to adapt to older network protocols for legacy applications. If wireless spectrum is available, the same network technology can be deployed on the surface and underground, providing fleet connectivity and person-to-person or group communications across the entire mine.

In other words, there’s no longer a question about which connectivity technology to use for which cases: private wireless can handle them all. Having just a single network technology to deploy and manage can reduce operating costs significantly while making a whole range of operational gains possible through Industry 4.0 digitalization and automation — both above and below ground.

Recently, Nornickel - the world’s largest producer of palladium and high-grade nickel and a major producer of platinum and copper - and Nokia have successfully completed testing of a private LTE, 5G ready wireless network in the deepest mine in Eurasia, at a depth of 875 meters.

Download our infographic on creating the connected digital mine. For more information about Nokia’s solutions for the mining industry, please visit our mining webpage and explore our white papers and case studies.

Marc Jadoul

About Marc Jadoul

Marc Jadoul is Strategic Marketing Director at Nokia. A computer scientist by education, and technology evangelist, storyteller, speaker, and blogger by vocation.

Author/co-author of 200+ papers, magazine articles and conference presentations, and a frequent speaker and panelist at industry events, Marc is an advocate of Albert Einstein’s dictum “if you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.”

Tweet me at @mjadoul

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