Insight into next generation satellite services in the mining life cycle

2022-08-02T08:58:10+00:00 August 1st, 2022|Insight|

Edited by Sharyn Macnamara

The global satellite services industry is in a rapid development phase with next generation LEO, MEO and GEO launches planned for later this year and next year. They offer impressive performance specifications that unlock quantified business value during the full mining life cycle, and Dr Dawie de Wet provides insight into the performance capabilities.

According to Dr de Wet, group CEO of Q-KON and chief engineer for Twoobii, a southern African supported satellite broadband service, innovation in the satellite industry has reached new heights with new services being brought to fruition through the launch of LEO (Low Earth Orbit), MEO (Medium Earth Orbit) and GEO (Geostationary or Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit) constellations. In addition, the advantages of software-defined satellites are becoming more apparent to the telecommunications industry. With data rates of up to 10Gbps per communication link and latency reduced to between 600msec and 50msec, satellite services are no longer burdened by the old myths around speed, cost, and latency.

Dawie de Wet, CEO of Q-KON and chief engineer of Twoobii Smart Satellite Services. Image credit: Barbara van den Berg

Dawie de Wet, CEO of Q-KON and chief engineer of Twoobii Smart Satellite Services. Image credit: Barbara van den Berg

Dr de Wet explains that the global satellite industry is in the middle of its most significant period of growth and innovation since the industry started in the 1960s. This wave of technological progress – both in space and on the ground – is being driven by the need to increase data speeds, decrease costs and open the way to new applications such as mobile and easy-to-deploy solutions. LEO, MEO and GEO satellite solutions are all benefitting from the underlining reduction in launch costs. (See diagram 1).

“At Q-KON, we have developed the Twoobii Smart Satellite Service which leverages global constellations to unlock the price and performance benefits of the latest technology, then adds specific functions and features. In particular, our Smart Satellite Service enables reliable voice services, video streaming for applications such as CCTV and IT solutions such as SD-WAN,” says Dr de Wet.

The company’s reliability, ease of deployment and flexible billing options make these services a particularly effective communications tool for multiple applications throughout the full mining life cycle. Dr Dawie de Wet highlights several instances that show the value that they can add throughout the mining life cycle.

Diagram 1, Twoobii Mining Graphic. Credit: Twoobii

Diagram 1, Twoobii Mining Graphic. Credit: Twoobii

Exploration

Exploration teams need tactical communications for broadband, voice, and data services in order to remain in contact with head office while moving between different field locations. While mobile satellite services have been available for some time, the data bundle costs of these services previously limited their use to emergency communications.

This has all changed, with recent advances in phased array antenna technologies and their integration with the Twoobii GEO Smart Satellite Services, making it possible to provide portable terminals that can offer data links at 20Mbps for corporate voice services, video and broadband connectivity with flexible billing options offered at very affordable monthly rates.

“Mining operations and businesses need solutions for Zoom or Teams calls, or remote surveillance, or graphic interface transfers – all of these applications require unlimited connections, even at remote, off-grid locations. While satellite services have been used in this role for some time, the price-points were typically around R225,000 per month for a 10Mbps service. Today, more capable versions of this same service are available at R45,000 per month.”

These next generation services enable seamless integration with corporate networks – for example, an exploration team can use their office telephone numbers, set-up Zoom, or Teams calls and perform other business communication functions just as if they were in the office. These voice services are also billed using the same least-cost routing models applicable to standard corporate services based on IP-telephony compatible with business networks.

Construction and Development

During site establishment, plant construction and operational start-up, communications are required rapidly, at different locations, for different contractors and mining operational groups. “All these requirements can be met using various fixed satellite terminals that provide short-term high-capacity links,” says Dr de Wet.

He explains, planned next generation services will deliver data rates of up to 100Mbps with communication latency of just 50msec (about the time it takes to say hello), making this an ideal tool to implement this diverse campus communication fabric which is integrated into a single IP architecture using layer-2 over satellite solution methodologies. A hybrid network configuration is possible through the integration of MEO and GEO services in a single seamless IP communication model.

On a local level, key to this discussion is the fact that all these communication links can be seamlessly interconnected with South African corporate networks, if required. The Twoobii Smart Satellite Services portfolio offers a network interconnect point in Teraco, Johannesburg to facilitate this degree of network compatibility.

Extraction

Generally, once mining construction is underway, there is typically enough time to implement Telco fibre or microwave links to mining sites, and these services then provide the primary communication links during the extraction or operational phase.

Dr de Wet comments that at this point, satellite services move from being a primary fixed service solution to operating more as back-up services in locations where very high reliability is required and for mining locations that can still not be cabled into the campus network. Also, satellite terminals can be used to provide communications on a permanent basis at community locations such as schools, clinics and community centres. Community HOTspots for public broadband services can be readily deployed using satellite terminals to address corporate community responsibilities.

Twoobii is a high-throughput satellite connectivity service, powered by the latest Intelsat platforms and managed by Q-KON. Image credit: Barbara van den Berg

Twoobii is a high-throughput satellite connectivity service, powered by the latest Intelsat platforms and managed by Q-KON. Image credit: Barbara van den Berg

“Twoobii provides seamless and reliable connectivity from any location and any industrial or business device, it is mostly application independent and can be used almost anywhere,” says Dr de Wet. He explains that supplication in automation includes the interconnection of conveyer controller networks for long-distance process control scenarios, as is used by the coal mining industry, or the communication network to connect the monitor equipment in pipeline monitoring networks. There are many deployments where Twoobii can connect process and control end-points back to the plant core network or to cloud services. These connections are mostly standard broadband services and interface with control or IP user terminals.

The company has been involved in partnerships with robotics suppliers too. He says, “We have collaborated with various solutions providers. For example, we worked with Siemens to evaluate an augmented reality (AR) solution that enables third-level tele-support services. This is made possible through the advanced data quality provided by service features built into the Twoobii Smart Satellite Service.”

When it comes to custom solutions for mining houses – a 99.95% uptime can be achieved using solar back-up. Dr de Wet comments, “Satellite in general, and Smart Satellite Services in particular, are the most reliable telecommunications options available to industry. This is due to the nature of the network architecture and the fact that there are no towers or cabling that could introduce downtime risks.”

Next generation services offer significant advantages in performance, latency and billing model flexibility for satellite services used in a back-up configuration.

New emerging MEO services, such as the SES mPower service, are designed for continuous use as primary services. By completely shifting performance and price paradigms, these new MEO services are introducing 1Gbps over satellite links at latencies of around 70msec and at cost points similar to long-haul fibre links, notes Dr de Wet. For remote mining sites which are located too far from telco grids to permit cost-effective fibre link implementation, the mPower service will be a viable and very attractive alternative.

“We can also offer ‘pay-per-use’ commercial models for standby satellite links to provide mining operations with a new business case based around communications reliability. Reaching nearly 100% uptime at very acceptable price points is now very feasible as mining operations only pay for the back-up service when it is actually used,” says Dr de Wet.

Twoobii offers ‘off-grid’ business broadband connectivity ideal for the mining industry. Supplied by Twoobii

Twoobii offers ‘off-grid’ business broadband connectivity ideal for the mining industry. Supplied by Twoobii

Closure

Once production has ended and mining operations move to the closure phase, satellite services are the best option for providing ongoing monitoring services and data communications for plant closure operations, rehabilitation projects and ongoing community services. Dr De Wet highlights that in this field, the most notable innovation in next generation satellite services is the development of compact phased-array antennas which enable small portable and mobile terminals to connect to GEO satellite networks.

Smart Satellite IoT Services such as the HiSky service provide an easily deployable packet data communications link for telemetry and SCADA (Supervisory control and data acquisition) applications (also very relevant in the mining operations phase for monitoring pipelines, remote plant, access control and utilities).

Summary

Recent innovations in next generation satellite services are offering the mining industry completely new communication value propositions throughout the mining operational life cycle.

Project houses, consultants and mining operations would do well to seek a new and complete update on the capabilities of current and emerging next generation satellite services. While satellite is in a strong growth phase, niche service providers are best positioned to provide inputs into the business and cost advantages of next generation satellite services for the mining industry.

With over 30 years’ experience in designing, engineering, developing and implementing wireless, microwave and satellite communication systems in Africa, Dr de Wet is focused on developing Telco solutions that integrate user requirements, emerging markets and leading technology.