By James Trevelyan
At a time of huge volatility for the African mining market, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to cause high disruption at sites in South Africa, Ghana, Namibia and Nigeria along with many other countries.
According to McKinsey & Company, global production has fallen by about 42% and almost half of all operations saw budgets slashed in 2020 because of disruptions by Covid-19.
Miners face relentless pressure to maximise productivity and profit whilst reducing costs and maintaining safety. Key to this is connectivity, where a robust, reliable communications platform powers digital innovation that reduces risks, increases uptime, and uncovers any hidden inefficiencies.
With technology having long been the answer for transforming failing businesses, it is more important than ever for mining operators in Africa to embrace the concept of the ‘Connected Mine’. Not only, will it have the benefit of optimising operations, but it will boost safety levels and ensure the site remains efficient.
The need for digitalisation
Some companies are already turning to technology with estimates that the global mining automation market will grow at a rate of 7.3% CAGR over the next five years. However, many are slow to act as only seven of the top 40 mining operators employs a chief technology officer, chief information officer or chief digital officer among their top ranks, showing that digital transformation is still not considered a priority.
Failure to comply with this trend will see many businesses trapped in a never-ending cycle of volatility, where capital costs, operating costs and inefficiencies remain high, at a time when ore grades, reserves and prices keep falling. This is where technology really comes into its own, predicted to deliver economic benefits totalling USD370-billion globally per year by 2025.
With the Connected Mine, it is the connections that create value by linking people on the mining site with staff at regional and global operating centres, physical devices, and software platforms. These connections permit mines to run with fewer, better qualified personnel and produce a far higher return on investment in the long-term.
It works by harnessing a range of integrated solutions such as radio local area networks (LANs) with on-site wide-area networks (WANs), Internet of Things (IoT) applications such as automated vehicles, sensors and surveillance cameras and connecting by VSAT to regional and global offices. The Connected Mine also improves quality of life for onsite staff by connecting them with family, friends and the outside world for entertainment and news. But most importantly, the Connected Mine allows for reliable, high quality connectivity for essential online information and services and deep insights for managers, with all the data drawn from each application, enabling intelligent decision making that protects onsite workers and assets.
From wearable technologies monitoring where personnel are at all times, to automated vehicles navigating rough tracks via GPS and wireless sensors on the ground, the Connected Mine has many different applications.
Whilst technology can deliver many benefits, the success of the Connected Mine relies heavily on reliable, secure, and flexible high-quality connectivity. Without this, operations may become unsafe and managers will be unable to make the right decisions, with devices and people unable to communicate.
As part of this, any connectivity must be able to run reliably even under harsh conditions and be able to handle varying amounts of traffic. At the same time, it will be important for any network to be able to optimise services as requirements change. This places very special considerations on the network essential for this mission critical communication.
Any service must be fully managed and be able to integrate seamless cellular, microwave, Wi-Fi, optical fibre, low-bandwidth satellite and VSAT seamlessly so that all needs of the site can be met. It must also be able to support applications that require just a few kilobits per second whilst balancing these with those needing hundreds of megabits per second. Smart network management is also essential, where it is possible to dynamically switch to the best price-performance service at any moment, from circuits offering a broad spread of capabilities and cost. In contract, static network designs often create both stranded capacity and transmission bottlenecks that become too costly and fail to meet user needs.
The network needs to also offer maximum uptime, able to run at all times with no degradation of quality or service and be highly secure to guarantee that all the sensitive information transmitted remains safe from interception. It also requires installation, field maintenance and helpdesk support in locations such as remote Africa, where no telephone company goes and a mix of technologies that phone companies cannot manage.
At the same time, it needs to easily support critical enterprise applications such as e-learning, remote management and monitoring and cybersecurity whether native to the network or operated by the mining company. A single point of contact for customer services, management and billing is also critical to minimise any billings overheads and keep costs to a minimum.
Whilst Wi-Fi supported by microwave has long been the staple of onsite connectivity, private LTE is rapidly becoming the preferred technology for onsite connectivity at mines. With wider and deeper coverage and a longer range than Wi-Fi, more predictable performance for multiple users, and military-grade security with SIM authentication and E2E encryption, it is not hard to see why. Private LTE also integrates LPWAN technology perfect for supporting multiple IoT applications on the same network and has a roadmap for future upgrades to 5G driving productivity to new heights with super low latency and high bandwidth.
The Connected Mine in reality
Once a reliable, high quality network is in place, mines are free to enjoy the many benefits the Connected Mine can bring. For a major gold producer in Africa, Speedcast was able to deliver a fully managed, secure satellite communications network for their sites in the region and in Australia. The network was seamlessly integrated into the company’s existing communications infrastructure to leverage its existing investment and provide higher quality voice and data service. As a result, they noticed a boost in crew morale, more reliable communications across site and a better return on investment due to the uplift in productivity and profit.
In Mali in West Africa, the concept of the Connected Mine has seen Resolute Mining, at its Syama Complex, using automated vehicles and drills to extract 300 000 ounces of gold per year. This has seen its operational efficiency jump by 30%, while the robotic technology has allowed the company to train local Malians to do the work, rather than relying on expensive, experienced miners.
The future of mining
As the pandemic continues to cause disruption, it is giving operators in Africa time to consider the real benefits of technology and the difference it can make to productivity, safety, and profit. With remote management more important now than ever, the Connected Mine will become an essential part of getting the mining industry back on its feet.
With the African mining industry experiencing considerable disruption, it is important for them to embrace the power of technology and connectivity to relieve the pressures they are facing. Combining IoT with mission critical communication, it is possible to revolutionise operations and become more profitable whilst enabling greater efficiency, as predictability is put back into the grasp of decision makers. With deeper insights, bottlenecks can be removed, predictive maintenance schedules made, remote management and real-time monitoring enabled and safety drastically improved. Working with this set-up mining in Africa has a bright future ahead, that allows for the best use of assets and employees.
By James Trevelyan, Senior Vice President of Sales, Enterprise and Emerging Markets at Speedcast.