Private 5G networks start powering autonomous mining

Autonomous mining using 5G cellular technology and satellite Internet of Things (IoT) services is starting in markets around the world.

One of Latin America’s first autonomous mining pilots is taking place in Colombia, enabled by an industrial-grade private 5G network from Nokia.

Using cameras and sensors, machines can detonate dynamite in the pit of the mine without direct human supervision.

5G for Connected Mines

In the mines around Colombia’s share of the Andes mountains, there’s a strategic dilemma to be resolved.

On one hand, there’s plenty of untapped economic potential and a sharp need with 27% of Colombia’s citizens living in poverty, according to DANE, the national statistical information provider.  Colombia is a major producer of coal and gold and is reportedly looking to ramp up copper output to meet anticipated demand for rechargeable batteries.

As with most deep mining epicenters, however, tragedies in Colombia frequently occur. From 2005 to 2018, there were more than 1,200 emergencies in Colombian mines caused more than 1,000 deaths, according to national safety, rescue and public health experts. The national mining agency says illicit diggers in unsanctioned mines accounted for six in 10 deaths in the first eight months this year.

Connected technology offers a potential solution.

In these early days for private 5G-enabled mines, the spectrum’s multiple frequency bands are a key draw, according to Alejandro Cortes, the firm’s head of enterprise for northern Latin America.

“The pilot has shown to the community how the use of new technology will help on the daily operations of the mine, optimizing productivity and efficiency,” Cortes said.

Operating autonomy underground requires high-definition imagery so that computer vision algorithms can determine different elements in the rock at unfailing accuracy, while ultra-low latency is needed for the controller above ground to adjust the machine’s trajectory, according to Dan Bieler, principal analyst at Forrester.

Similar use cases have already emerged for 5G in verticals such as smart shipping ports, so the technology is largely already to go, Bieler told IoT World Today.

Other telecommunications providers also expect 5G to support deep mining safety and digital efficiency tools. Earlier this month, Mobile TeleSystem (MTS), a Russian mobile operator, began developing a 5G-ready private network at an iron mining and processing plant.

The private enterprise network would support voice and video communication, positioning and video mining, emergency notifications and operational management of the production complex. However, MTS says 5G will come later, and it’s only promising LTE speeds at the start.

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