Humanity has been mining for a very longtime. In fact, archeological records and carbon dating show that the Ngwenya Mine, in Swaziland is 43,000 years old1. Underground mining, due to its complexity, difficulty, and risks, does not have a long history; but it has been around for many generations. Regardless of how one is accessing the underground mine, be it via a Decline (tunnel), a Shaft (vertical excavation), or Adit (horizontal excavation on the side of a hill or mountain), once underground you’re in a vastly different environment.
It is fascinating how we take many things for granted when we think about living, breathing and communicating at home, at work or just about anywhere above ground. Underground work is quite different as it is a world deprived of sunlight, unassisted fresh and free air, sophisticated communications systems, and GPS (satellite signal). For example, underground solutions for light and ventilation systems have been around for decades now.
Until now, communication systems in underground mines have had a slow evolution. In fact, surface communication needs, and users, are the driving markets for communications equipment manufacturers. Communications systems have always been created to solve surface environment challenges and then later adapted for the underground environment and use cases. Consequently, most installed underground communications solutions are based on decades-old LMR2 or newer DMR systems, relying on leaky feeder cables to deliver basic 2-way mobile wireless communications for people. LMR/DMR and leaky feeder solutions, when first adapted for underground, were a game changer for workers safety, communications, and efficiency. Although these solutions delivered mobile voice, they could not deliver broadband wireless data. A solution for broadband wireless data was needed, for people and machines, so for the last decade, many mining companies deployed Wi-Fi underground.
When Wi-Fi was first adapted for underground, it was an exciting way to deliver broadband wireless data for people and machines. Wi-Fi is still commonly used in underground mines and will be used for many years to come; just like it will be in our houses, workplaces, public places, event spaces and anywhere people or machines gather. Although Wi-Fi has evolved significantly, and the user density and data flow (capacity) have significantly increased, it is still a fixed technology, and does not deliver mobility like the old LMR/DMR systems.
Like many industrial markets, underground mining is going through a massive digital transformation. This ensures significantly better ways to guarantee worker safety, efficiency, productivity, and connectivity. New dispatch systems, new Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) systems, the use of drones and other new technologies that rely on always-on mobile communications, will be introduced and installed in underground mines globally. Considering that LMR/DMR systems do not offer broadband and that Wi-Fi systems do not offer mobility, it was an eventuality that LTE would make its way from the surface to underground.
Mobility operators have never seen a business case in offering either 2G, 3G or 4G for private underground networks, such as the one mining companies need. The underground mining business is not practical for mobile operators, and the technology used by these mobile operators is designed for large user density and require decent reliability, which is the opposite of what mining companies need. The industrial mobility network needs for underground mining are about small user density and guaranteed connectivity, as lives and autonomous vehicles will depend on it. Because of this, new LTE manufacturers are making a strong entrance into underground mines, with full turn-key, Private Industrial LTE solutions designed for the underground environment constraints and challenges. From the operational perspective, Private Industrial LTE must also be designed to be much simpler to manage and operate, so mining companies do not need to hire mobility operator specialists and can leverage and rely on their IS/IT talent to manage the simplified Private Industrial LTE networks and associated user devices and SIM cards.
Private Industrial LTE is the biggest game-changer in underground mining communications since the very first LMR implementation. Private underground LTE delivers full underground mobility for: voice, data, video, dispatch systems, HSE systems, drones and any other system or applications the new digital mine requires. The transition to a Private Industrial LTE network underground is the single largest enablement foundation, delivering a full suite of new employee safety and digital transformation applications. In fact, the Private Industrial LTE infrastructure can save lives, and pays for itself in the first year when you consider the significant savings these new digital transformation applications are supplementing on the new underground LTE infrastructure. Some of these new digital transformation applications enabled by the new Private Industrial LTE are:
- New dispatch management systems
- Autonomous vehicles and machinery
- People, machine and asset tracking
- LMR/DMR transition to LTE Push-to-talk (PTT)
- Voice, data, video applications
- Drone communications
- Equipment health monitoring
- Automated collection such as mine slope wall data
- Emergency notification system
- Collision awareness systems
- Ventilation fan monitoring
- Fatigue monitoring
- Security surveillance camera monitoring
- Access control systems
- Treatment plant monitoring
- Power network monitoring
- Conveyor monitoring and interlock
- Alarm monitoring of portable machinery
- Gas detection systems
- Water level monitoring and supply control systems
- Remote control and alarm for emergency generators
- Remote control operation of fixed and mobile mining machinery
Planning, engineering, deploying, and supporting a Private Industrial LTE network for underground mining is not as easy as rigging a cord with two tin cans. It is achieved by selecting the right, fit-for-purpose, equipment manufacturers with the right technology, Advanced Services, SIM card management, proper safety certifications, on-staff miners, training programs and global execution partners and support. So, as you plan adigital transformation for a mine, you need to start with the right Private Industrial LTE infrastructure manufacturer/partner. One that is focused on industrial needs and requirements, one that has thought through the life of the industrial network from planning, design, product form factor, power consumption, ease of installation, ease of use for IT professionals, integration to the existing IS/IT infrastructure, understanding of, and compatibility with, new mining applications. A successful underground Private Industrial LTE system is more than just products. It involves a holistic approach and methodology that builds a solid foundation on which all digital transformation applications can rely.
2 – LMR/DMR Land Mobile Radios & Digital Mobile Radios are also commonly called 2-Way Radios