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Leaving 2020 behind: What’s next for digital mines?

Leaving 2020 behind: What’s next for digital mines?

December is typically a time to look back on the year that was. It goes without saying that 2020 has been challenging for virtually everyone, with COVID-19 dramatically disrupting the way we lived and worked. In a way, that makes it even more important to seize the opportunity now to reflect, strategize, and make plans for the future — in my case, the future of the mining industry.

The pandemic caused many mines to either suspend their operations or scale down production. At the same time, concern for workers has led the industry as a whole to rethink safety protocols, procedures, and personal protection. So, where can the industry go from here, and how can digital transformation help?

COVID-19 as a catalyst

A few weeks ago, I stumbled on a social media survey asking, “Who is driving digital transformation in your company?” The three possible answers were:

(a) the CEO
(b) the CTO
(c) COVID-19

It was meant as a joke, but I suspect most respondents actually replied (c), because one of the interesting side effects of the COVID-19 crisis has been the acceleration of the adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies.

The 2021 edition of EY’s top 10 business risks and opportunities for mining and metals report notes that, “...changes enacted to respond to COVID-19 have created opportunities to accelerate digital transformation and enhance safety and productivity,” and, “seizing these opportunities and mitigating risks requires miners to proactively and collaboratively accelerate this progress and reframe for a volatile future.”

Though many of the challenges and opportunities listed in the report depend on external factors, it is clear that adopting innovative technologies for automation, remote and autonomous operation will drive transformation and help create safer, more sustainable, efficient, productive, and profitable mines.

To get the best from these technologies, high-performing wireless connectivity is essential. At Nokia, we believe deploying an industrial-grade private wireless network is the best option. This type of network can create a single infrastructure that supports fast, reliable, and secure data transmission — including mission-critical push-to-talk/push-to-video communications, real-time video streaming, and IoT sensor networks — in the often highly challenging deployment conditions of a mine setting.

Proving out the concept

Over the past twelve months, the connected digital mine landscape has continued to mature, and Nokia has been there to support mining automation and transformation as a key network supplier. During this time, we’ve observed several promising trends.

Early proofs-of-concept and single-mine trials have evolved to in-field operations and mass rollouts. Today, more than 20 of our mining customers have implemented private wireless in more than 40 mines. We’re running digitalization projects with four of the top five global mining operators. And Komatsu, a pioneer in mining automation, is running more than half of its autonomous haulage production sites in North America, Latin America, and Australia on Nokia private 4.9G/LTE.

Project scopes have expanded from open pit to underground mining environments. Underground mines have “blind” production areas, where narrow drifts and galleries make all activities — including communications — particularly challenging. We’re working with innovators like NORCAT and Sandvik to advance underground mining solutions and practices to deliver reliable wireless voice and data communication to every corner of the mine.

Private 5G spectrum licensing is coming. While a growing number of markets have already released private spectrum for 4G, some countries have also started licensing vertical 5G spectrum. Australia is a great example of a country where the regulator’s spectrum policy is shaping innovation in the mining sector. And even in countries that are not yet offering private spectrum, public service providers are partnering with their mining customers to build the 5G-ready networks they need. Examples of such collaboration include Vale/Vivo in Brazil and Teck/Shaw in Canada.

Although the majority of Nokia’s mining customers are still opting for 4.9G/LTE solutions, 5G technology will add even more capabilities, such as more bandwidth for (ultra-) high-definition video and lower latency, both critical for real-time tele-remote control of robots and drones. Sandvik has partnered with Nokia to implement the industry’s first private 5G Standalone (SA) network in its test mine facility in Tampere, Finland. And Chile’s ministries of Transport and Telecommunications and Mining just announced the first Latin American 5G pilot in mining with Codelco and Nokia.

The transformation continues

With a new year come new opportunities. While a COVID-19 vaccine will gradually take us back to (new) normal in 2021, mining companies will continue to reinvent themselves, rethink their operations, and adopt new ways of working. Nokia will be there to help them along their transformation journey — on the surface and underground.

For more information about Nokia’s solutions for the mining industry, please visit our web page and explore our white papers, use cases, and case studies.

Gary Conway

About Gary Conway

Gary Conway is Nokia’s Global Head of Mining, based in Dubai, UAE; his team is serving customers in the Mining and Oil and Gas Sector by helping them address the rapid changes and developments in their respective markets.

Outside of the office, Gary can be found in the kitchen. He’s a passionate amateur chef; Asian food, especially Indian cuisine is his specialty.

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