Boliden has, for the past few years, been testing out 4G and 5G networks at its mines in the Nordic region and recently went live with 4G (LTE) network services at its Aitik open-pit copper mine in Sweden, Fredrik Kauma, Project Manager, told attendees at the recent Mines and Technology conference in London.
The company, one of the mining sector’s leaders when it comes to employing innovative technology, installed its first underground Wi-Fi network in 2013 and has since come a long way on this connectivity journey.
Today, all of Boliden’s mines have complete Wi-Fi coverage, with the network consisting of some 3,000 installed access points and additional hardware, Kauma said. The company uses this for voice communication and positioning, but also other services such as remote control, machine-to-machine interactions and general data or information access.
In 2016, the company installed a small 4G network in one of its underground mines. Now, multiple upgrades later, the network includes the latest 4G features, in addition to elements considered “borderline” 5G, Kauma said. He credited a close co-operation with Ericsson and its research organisation for this installation as well as the Swedish mobile network operator Telia.
The 4G/5G network covers about 1.8 km of tunnels plus 10,000 m² of other areas (production/workshop/offices/canteen) with relatively few pieces of radio equipment, according to Kauma.
Coverage of a similar area with Wi-Fi would require about three times as many access points, he pointed out.
Kauma said: “We use our 4G/5G network to:
- “Test and compare connectivity-related capabilities – network speed, coverage, quality, etc;
- “Learn about operation and maintenance; how to roll systems out, what to monitor, key performance indicators, etc;
- “Understand more of the business side – what work to do in-house/outsource, what should be part of a service level agreement, etc.”
A direct outcome of this test network has been the recently addition of 4G network services at Aitik, one of Europe’s largest and most efficient open-pit copper mines.
This will allow the company to, primarily, carry out accurate remote control of its fleet of Epiroc Pit Viper blasthole drill rigs.
“But, long-term we believe it will replace our existing production Wi-Fi network,” Kauma said.
The future in 5G
While Wi-Fi does offer Boliden much in terms of connectivity, it cannot match 4G/5G when it comes to robustness and coverage. This is part of the reason the company is pursuing developments with 5G technology.
Equipment tracking is one area that could potentially be improved with 5G, Kauma said.
Today Boliden currently uses “passive” Wi-Fi tags for this task, with active antennas mounted on mining vehicles. The signal reflection is only picked up if the tags face the direction of the active antenna and the vehicle with antenna passes close by. While this system adds a lot of value, it does not currently offer the reliability Boliden would like to see, he said.
With 5G, Boliden expects to have “active”, as opposed to passive, tags, which transmit information on a pre-determined basis.
What Kauma termed “advanced remote control” operation is another area set to benefit from 5G connectivity.
The company already has remote control operations today, but it is either line-of-sight or a pre-determined, repetitive type of remote operation; not advanced.
In advanced remote operations, the performance of the wireless communications network has a direct impact on how well the operator can handle the machine, with control responsiveness and picture quality the main factors here.
According to Kauma, low latency will greatly improve the real-time aspects required for secure and efficient handling of vehicles, machinery and other equipment such as drills, hammers, shovels, etc.
In addition, the Quality of Service concept, where priority of connection is given to certain customers, will guarantee bandwidth needs for a detailed enough video stream to the remote operator – even on a heavily loaded network, he said.
“Higher data rates and increased network capacity will enable remote control on a larger scale than what’s possible on today’s 4G technology,” Kauma said.
The improved connectivity expected to come with employing 5G will also be beneficial for wearable technologies, which Boliden has been trialling to help improve the safety and well-being of employees.
The company recently tested out use of a prototype “smart vest” at one of its underground mines for, primarily, proximity detection, but also to “gain a better understanding of other possibilities that comes with this technology”, Kauma said.
The prototype vest was the result of research cooperation between Boliden, Ericsson, clothing company Helly Hansen and technology firm LightFlex Sweden AB.
In addition to the standard proximity detection functions, lights or reflectors warn the wearer as well as surrounding personnel of potential dangers through different flashing/blinking patterns.
Together with advance camera technology, the lights also aid autonomous machinery to automatically detect humans in dark environments.
Boliden would like to, in the near-future, use wearable technology for the monitoring of employees in physically-demanding environments; for analysis of the immediate environment surrounding employees (extreme temperatures, dangerous air quality, strong vibrations or sounds); and for positioning and situational awareness (ie warnings for approaching vehicles).
Key ingredients to make this a reality include a reduction in power consumption – low power means smaller and longer lasting batteries – a fall in cost, enabling the company to equip its entire workforce, and better network coverage and reliability – hence the use of 5G.
“If 5G delivers on its promise, it will be a critical component enabling wearable technology in an industrial environment like ours,” Kauma concluded.