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Digging for Gigabits, Connecting Mines with mmWave

The “Industry 4.0” wave is sweeping through all sorts of manufacturing and production sectors – and the mining industry is no exception.

Industry 4.0 has been described as “the ongoing automation of traditional manufacturing and industrial practices, using modern smart technology. Large-scale machine-to-machine communication (M2M) and the internet of things (IoT) are integrated for increased automation, improved communication and self-monitoring, and production of smart machines that can analyze and diagnose issues without the need for human intervention.”

Industry 4.0 includes AI-powered innovations, lots of “smart vision” applications and concepts new to mining such as “digital twins.” A digital twin is part of the project and asset management toolkits and entails the creation of 3D (and even additional dimensions, up to 6) CAD-created models that can serve as the basis for a project’s planning, scheduling, estimation, contracting, execution and control. The digital twin model is updated continuously with site surveying and progress measurement provided by drone footage.

What all of these cutting-edge Industry 4.0 tools have in common is the need for connectivity to transmit what can be massive amounts of data. For example, consider that an HD smart vision or drone camera even with the most aggressive compression can transmit 24 Gigabytes of information every day. And with more than 2300 active mineral exploration sites worldwide as of EOY 2017, the need for bandwidth could mount to almost unimaginable levels. To meet the need for flexible, Gigabit-speed connectivity that often needs to be deployed “on demand” to account for changing conditions, critical infrastructure operations ranging from ports to utilities to mining operations are turning to high-frequency band mmWave technology.

The network planning consultancy Infovista recently posted a very informative blog on the wireless networking infrastructure requirements for the mining industry. Although the focus was on cellular IoT, the author’s description of the unique wireless connectivity challenges illustrates as well the benefits of multi-Gigabit mmWave links in such a setting. First, providing the always on, high data performance wireless connectivity needed to support mission critical applications in mines is challenging. Gaps in coverage leading to missing or delayed data can reduce the performance of various applications or stop them completely.

For instance, how do operations managers deliver wireless service underground or in large open pit areas that change constantly due to excavation and growing tailing piles? How many large vehicles and other equipment must be connected? How does one maintain uninterrupted video uplink connectivity and bandwidth to support remote control and automated applications?

The blog makes note of the remote locations for mining operations and the options of building a private network or teaming with an MNO. However, private LTE or 5G or commercial cellular networks may work for narrowband IoT connections, but may run into bandwidth or latency issues when it comes to direct HD camera connectivity or backhaul. And speaking of backhaul (as in backhauling hundreds of cellular IoT endpoints and traffic), fiber can meet these requirements of course, but it is often prohibitively expensive to deploy in these remote locations and prone to frequent cuts or disruptions.

With this as background Siklu mmWave systems operating in the 60, 70/80GHz bands present an excellent solution. mmWave radios have extremely narrow beams, which is a key advantage when deploying and upgrading the wireless network. Narrow beams and abundant spectrum (over 24Ghz to choose from) make it easier to design a network that would have zero impact on other wireless systems being used in the mine. When it comes to this type of RF planning, mmWave radios excel with regards to several considerations.

For instance, mmWave has the flexibility to provide both “blanket” coverage and the required data performance where needed. Networks at critical infrastructure sites are more uplink than downlink (because of video requirements) and the narrow beams of mmWave make signal and interference modeling and planning much easier. This will prove useful in cases where it might be necessary to increase transmit power, such as with radios mounted around the rim of an open pit mine and pointed down. Siklu with its broad portfolio of mmWave systems offers complete coverage of an area and hard to reach places with a combination of both point-to-point and point-to-multipoint configurations.

With capacities from 1Gbps up to 10Gbps Full Duplex, Siklu mmWave equipment also offers plenty of room to grow to accommodate additional cameras and applications, such as 24x7 security monitoring and video management operations. Other “big data” traffic results from growing on-board monitoring operations. This type of monitoring pertains to the concept of “connectivity visibility per user,” which is important in areas where there is constant mobility and change. On-board monitoring provides data performance, RF conditions and signaling interaction metrics. As a result, on-board monitoring can address individual device or installation issues (including antenna systems), as well as issues with network function and performance which can ultimately impact multiple users and applications.

Lastly, wireless networks operating at mining sites must be ruggedized to take the heat – and the cold and all kinds of extreme weather conditions found at these locations, such as those in the Arctic. In terms of physical security, the equipment must be “hardened” enough to operate in extreme and hazardous conditions, with IP code ratings of 67 or more. The IP code, or Ingress Protection Code, IEC standard 60529, sometimes interpreted as International Protection Code, classifies and rates the degree of protection provided by mechanical casings and electrical enclosures against intrusion, dust, accidental contact and water.

As for operational security, these networks are performing mission critical connectivity and need to have as close to 100% up time as is possible. Siklu products boast MTBF (mean time between failures) ratings that are measured in decades. With regards to signal and transmission integrity, mmWave networks support the most stringent methods of data encryption, user-access protocols and protection against jamming and other malicious interference (e.g., hacking).

Mines are not small holes dug far underground anymore. Today they are large in terms of territory and as the financial engine of large commercial enterprises. One that needs high speed communications as much as any enterprise, albeit in environments that can be extremely harsh and demanding. Siklu mmWave solutions are the answer, and have been deployed around the world delivering gigabit speeds in the worst environments.

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