Innovation is a matter of communication

Issue 2/3 2023 Mining (Industry), Infrastructure, Security Services & Risk Management

Off the back of the Investing in Africa Mining Indaba conference, which took place in Cape Town, President Cyril Ramaphosa took to the podium and pushed for more innovation. He said, “The mining industry also needs to manage the risks and potential benefits of rapid technological change, shifting market demand, climate change, and geo-political uncertainty.”

In the mining sector, beyond giant hydrogen-fuelled trucks and robotic miners, it is the industry’s migration from analogue to digital communication technology that is, perhaps, its most essential innovation.

Digitisation has pervaded every industry under the economic sun. The need to squeeze more efficiency and value to maintain competitive advantage has become the go-to strategy for CEOs in every vertical. In the mining industry, the migration from analogue to digital extends way beyond the balance sheet and is most keenly felt in communication technologies – where safety and productivity go hand-in-hand.

When man and machine work together in confined and dangerous spaces like mines, it demands a high level of constant and precise communication to ensure safe and efficient mining operations. The move towards digital communication technology has been a godsend for the mines and especially, the mineworkers.

The world’s leading mine operators are turning to digital technologies to transform their operations. Wireless communications and information technology systems have emerged as key enablers of mine digitalisation, promising to increase mine safety, productivity, and operational efficiency.

A hybrid mesh

This change, however, needs to happen faster if our industry is going to continue keeping our economy afloat. Many companies in the mining sector have been slow to adopt new technologies due to the scale and complexity of their operations, not to mention the costs that come with that change.

It was not that long ago that all mines were completely dependent on analogue radio technology, and in some, that technology is still in use today. In the case of analogue, teams of workers would be subjected to single-channel communications in which only one person could communicate at any given time. If that worker were to tape down their radio’s push-to-talk (PTT) button, then everyone would be shut out of the channel – potentially putting lives in danger.

This kind of digital radio communication technology is essential in an environment that presents so much danger. It’s not only about direct communication, but we have also implemented anti-collision technology in which all vehicles in the mines can utilise a combination of digital and radio technology to help drivers focus on their jobs rather than worrying about their environment.

To maintain a safe working environment balanced with an efficient and profitable production plan, a mission-critical radio and digital communications network is a prerequisite. Without analogue radio communications, efficiency, safety and productivity are compromised.

The key is to digitise that radio network and set up a hybrid wireless network in the mine area, combining cellular and broadband mesh. The hybrid wireless mine area network connects back to the control centre and enterprise over a core fibre network.

Now, we are able to implement what we call PTT over cellular, which allows radio users to connect to others through data networks. Not only that, but it means that users can get an instant response, provided others are connected through Wi-Fi, 3G or 4G. Naturally, emerging 5G standards will seek to enhance this, so long as spectrum issues are ironed out.

Although, we cannot ignore the fact that our mines tend to be out in the middle of nowhere, so connectivity is a constant concern. Not only are the mines out in the sticks, but operations also constantly move within their territory to take advantage of underground mineral wealth. This is why our mines have to rely on a combination of digital and analogue communications technologies.

In South Africa, the move towards these hybrid combination networks will increase the efficiencies of our country’s most dominant and essential sector. From the pit to the shaft to the control centre, our mines need to be bastions of safety and productivity. You cannot have one without the other. If our president wants to focus on more innovation, then I believe it is through the right mix of communication technology solutions that that innovation can manifest.

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