5G technology is empowering the future of smart mining
Most of us don’t take a deep dive into detailed facts and figures about the mining industry: how it operates; how it innovates; how it meets challenges. But we all count on a reliable and robust supply of metals and minerals for our computers, vehicles, buildings and medical equipment—in short: for everything we need.
In turn, the mining industry is critical to Canada’s economy. According to a recent report by the Mining Association of Canada, Canada ranks among the top five countries in the global production of 17 minerals and metals, supporting 392,000 direct and 327,000 indirect jobs.1
Safety, efficiency, cost-effectiveness and productivity: these are the priorities of Canada’s mining activities. The future of smart mining depends upon powerful connectivity to advance each one.
Transformation through automation
Mining operational protocols can be upgraded through private cellular networks that enable automation to protect workers, increase accuracy and monitor equipment. Recognizing the impact 5G wireless technology could have on the mining industry, Rogers worked with The University of British Columbia to explore the possibilities for progressive digital mining applications as well as how 5G could benefit traffic management and earthquake detection/damage mitigation. Announced in September 2018, this work was part of part our multi-million-dollar investment in Canada’s institutions for research and development.
Professor Ilija Miskovic of UBC’s Laboratory for Accelerated Discovery in Resources Engineering, conducts research into new digital frontiers in the minerals engineering space, developing theoretical and practical solutions for extractive industries. He clarifies the project’s objectives: “We hope to improve not only operational efficiency, but also sustainability across value chains … and we hope when [our] solutions are deployed, they will improve an overall sustainability score of the mining sector and enable smart mines of the future.”
Mine sites can be a hazardous environment. Traditional haulage vehicles are large, with limited visibility, increasing the opportunity for accidents, equipment damage and injury. Earlier autonomous vehicles were unable to prove their practical use in the field. They were bulky, and required separate cooling because of the heavy processing demands.
The UBC team is utilizing the power of 5G to test autonomous haulage trucks that can perform predictive maintenance, communicate with each other to prevent collisions and carry out independent tasks. Because of 5G’s speed and ultra-low latency, the roadblocks of the past have been surmounted: high volumes of data can be processed almost instantaneously using multi-access edge computing (MEC) capabilities.
Scale models test performance
The research lab developed five 1/14 scale hydraulic mining trucks, which can handle loads up to 100 kilograms and operate both on- and off-road. The vehicles travel through an open environment at UBC that has been set up to mimic an open-pit mine. Each truck is equipped with 5G modules that communicate with the Vancouver datacentre, which hosts a control application on the Rogers platform. The trucks all carry a set of sensors, including a depth-sensing 3D camera, a GPS and a LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scanner which acts similarly to sonar and radar to calculate distances.
Using Rogers 5G, the data from the sensors is sent to the MEC platform. The machine intelligence algorithms evaluate the status for predictive maintenance, spotting incipient problems and responding preemptively. This can also determine road conditions such as wind, snow, rain or ice, as well as taking other vehicles in the area into account, so that the trucks can improve navigation and avoid incidents.
This project requires enormous computational power. The capacity to handle low bandwidth latency and positioning requirements is essential for the vehicles to collect data and react to situations with large distances between computing systems. “If we are considering autonomous mining operations, which are usually in remote areas, there are numerous benefits to private 5G networks,” Professor Miskovic points out. “These benefits include availability and expandability of the network, especially in the areas where the coordinate work is not available.”
An ideal testbed
Neel Dayal, Senior Director of Innovation & Partnerships at Rogers Communications, appreciates the value of the UBC campus as a prime location to study and experiment with 5G use cases, commenting, “[The UBC site] really gives you the ideal setting for a wireless living lab.” The trucks follow a route approximately 200 metres long to a destination representing a primary crusher or minerals processing plant, encountering obstacles such as buildings and trees with varying terrain, which will help to deal with real-world scenarios.
The power of collaboration
The positive impacts realized through the Rogers and UBC partnership are impressive. Enhanced digital mining will help reduce risk to humans, increase the industry’s productivity, reduce fuel consumption and maintenance costs, and attract new investment in Canada’s mining industry.
“The right partnership means everything, and collaborations between companies like Rogers are critical drivers for the innovation,” explains Professor Miskovic. “[We} are laying a foundation for the next generation of 5G-enabled digital solutions for the mining industry.”
With a strong, united relationship between industrial and academic leaders, reflected in the alliance between Rogers Communications and the UBC research labs, young minds will follow the lead, encouraging Canada to push the boundaries of what’s possible and bolstering its reputation for innovative progress.
1“Facts and Figures 2020.” Mining Association of Canada. February 24, 2021.