Connectivity is key to the mine of the future
Experts from NORCAT and Rogers join the Mining Now podcast to explore the impact of IoT technology on mining operations.
How mining businesses can succeed by investing in new IoT technologies to make their operations safer, efficient, and profitable.
Please note: This video is only available in English
The mining industry is undergoing a massive digital transformation through the adoption of new and rapidly evolving technologies. The rewards of this transformation can be substantial, but how can mine operators ensure they are making the right investments at the right time to unlock the full potential of these transformative technologies?
That question was posed in a recent episode of the Mining Now podcast. Host Jerrod Downey sat down with Don Duvall, CEO of NORCAT, and Paul Howarth, Senior Director of Advanced Services at Rogers, to discuss the future of mining.
Technology adoption vs. innovation
First, Don notes that in the past mine operators tended to use their in-house engineering teams to develop new technologies. Over the last several decades, this has shifted to what Don calls an “outsourced innovation model”. In other words, mining companies will look to the wider technology market to source the solutions they need.
As Don says, “This has given rise to a vibrant supply-service-technology ecosystem unlike any other time in the industry’s history.” But this also means that mining companies now have to procure, adopt and deploy technology, instead of creating it themselves. This requires a different skill set, so mining companies can now find themselves in a battle for talent with tech companies. Don sums it by saying, “I don’t think the mining industry has an innovation problem, I think it has a technology adoption problem.”
“I can’t stress enough how important it is to put the technology where the people are going to use it in a real environment.”
Learn how the mining industry can leverage Rogers Business IoT solutions and Wireless Private Networks for enhanced connectivity, equipped to embrace the challenges of the future.
Proving new technology in a working mine
Closing this gap is one of the main reasons NORCAT created their Underground Centre in Sudbury, ON. Although its primary purpose is training mine workers and testing new technologies, the Underground Centre is also a working mine – as Don says, “we drill, we blast, we muck, so it runs the production cycle.”
Paul explains that the Rogers Technology Centre of Excellence was created at the Underground Centre precisely to be able to demonstrate that our solutions work in a real mining environment. “I can’t stress enough how important it is to put the technology where the people are going to use it in a real environment,” he says.
“What’s going to happen when we do blasting?”
Don agrees. “If you are underground, demonstrating something operating on a tele-remote or autonomous system with Rogers connectivity infrastructure while you’re physically in your personal protective equipment, it does matter. If we were just a tunnel, the value proposition would not be there, but it is because we run the full mining cycle and we adhere to all the regulatory framework.”
Paul notes that he can say to clients and partners, “Why don’t you come [to the Underground Centre] on the day that they are ready to do the blast and then let’s go down. take a look and see what happened to the technology during the event. There’s no other way I could ever show anybody that we’re doing this correctly.”
Connectivity is the foundation of innovation
One thing the Underground Centre has made abundantly clear is that connectivity is key to unlocking the potential of new technologies for mining. “Communications are critically important,” says Paul, “staying in touch with employees, knowing where those employees are, and knowing where they are relative to pieces of equipment, that’s where 4G and 5G technologies are really playing today. They have the opportunity to do so much more.”
The latest evolution of wireless technology, 5G, provides lower latency and higher bandwidth than 4G (LTE), which was itself an improvement over previous wireless technology. This is especially important for autonomous and tele-remote operations, which require highly reliable, low-latency wireless communications to receive guidance messages that are sent tens of times per second. 5G technology also allows companies to access a much greater volume of data.
Connectivity isn’t just about the mine
Mines, of course, bring some unique challenges when it comes to communications. “Generally speaking,” says Paul, “mine sites tend to be geographically remote, which can make it difficult to bring the same kind of robust, reliable connectivity we have in urban markets to these very remote mine sites.”
Paul mentions the example of the Detour Lake mine. Rogers was initially brought on to deploy a 5G private network at the mine site. It was clear that connectivity was also needed on the way to the mine, so Rogers expended its public network along the highway leading to the site, which also benefited nearby indigenous communities. There was no power infrastructure along the highway, so the cell towers are powered by solar and wind. Paul notes that this also helps reduce the environmental impact of mining, which is always under scrutiny. It was important to the mine operator “that we do the least amount of harm as we possibly could.” Paul explains that this “drove us to build standalone sites that are capable of operating with wind and solar, backed up by battery power if needed”.
"The mine of the future is “going to have a huge degree of autonomous and tele-remote systems, it’s going to have fewer workers underground or in the open pit.”
The data grows and grows and grows
Once the communication infrastructure is in place, Jerrod notes that the number of things a mine operation can do rapidly expands: “Track your ore, your processing, your chemicals, your people, your machines, and all of sudden you went from being able to collect a little bit of data to a situation where the data you have about your operations just grows and grows and grows.”
Don agrees. “We’re going to see a ton of development in communication infrastructure, so the mine of the future is one that’s going to be continuous, it’s going to be electric, it’s going to have a huge degree of autonomous and tele-remote systems, it’s going to have fewer workers underground or in the open pit, and operators are going to have the ability to do all this in a competitive way.”
Transformation sneaks up on you
As an example of this, Don points to the Musselwhite mine. Located over 500km north of Thunder Bay, the operator created what Don calls “an urban command centre” in the city, “where a team operates multiple pieces of machinery, be it through tele-remote or autonomous vehicle systems.” Don notes that younger workers tend to be more familiar and comfortable with these kinds of emerging technologies, so companies that that adopt technology solutions can not only see productivity and safety gains but put themselves in a better position to win the battle for talent.
Paul agrees this is the future but warns that “transformation sneaks up on you, it’s not something that’s just here. Those little incremental things a mining company can do, once they’ve got the communications infrastructure in place, that’s really the approach they should be taking. It’s not a flash and suddenly you’ve got a digital mine, it’s getting the basics working much better and then you can start introducing bigger transformational technologies.”
Preparing for a fast-changing future
Today the mining industry is changing, as Don says, “quarter by quarter”, but it is clear that connectivity will continue to be key to the future of mining. Don notes that all the innovative technologies that will be available to mine operators are “are going to require a backbone that can do and enable new use cases.” Paul agrees, saying “Gone are the days of ‘we’re just going to find a deposit and hope for the best as we start digging’. That’s a good thing, but the technologies that make a better way possible are going to need a lot of bandwidth, which means you’re going to need that connectivity.”
To listen to this episode of the Mining Now podcast, please click here.