Laboratory for Accelerated Discovery in Resource Engineering (ADRE) Lab

Mining Industry 4.0

Digitalization is impacting every form of the industry today, and no industry stands to gain more from technology than mining. The mining sector is witnessing a major transformation from being a data-poor domain to a data-rich one. This transformation is the new frontier for mining companies and has created a rich seam of research challenges.

The mining sector makes investments at the $100m plus scale. As a result, the sector has traditionally been risk-averse and slow to adopt new technologies. However, scarcity of high-grade mineral deposits, declining productivity, and tightened regulatory conditions have combined to create an impetus for change. Mining companies are now increasingly compelled to innovate. They are digitalizing their operations in the search for new paradigms of fully automated mines (“Mining 4.0”) with very high operational efficiency and low environmental impact.

Embedding IoT, robotics, 5G networks, edge and cloud computing, and a spectrum of AI technologies into mining creates an opportunity for a transformation across the whole value chain, from mine to mill to market.

Laboratory for Accelerated Discovery in Resource Engineering (ADRE) Lab

As a part of the NBK Institute of Mining Engineering, the ADRE Lab, led by Dr. Ilija Mišković, is specifically focused on the development of connected and smart technologies to disrupt and digitally transform the natural resources sector.

ADRE’s multi-disciplinary research portfolio, which blends research and knowledge mobilization across six general fields (Figure), bolsters and expands scholarship and innovative high-impact research within and across the UBC campus lines, and enables more effective means for collaboration with the mineral resource sector, provincial and federal governments, other academic institutions, and the community.

ADRE’s goal is not just about incorporating a gamut of technologies for the benefit of extracting more minerals and fuels, but also laying the foundations for a more resilient and sustainable sector, characterized by transparent supply chains and the sustainable sourcing of raw materials.

Research Project - Case Study

5G-Enabled Digital Mine Testbed

A major prerequisite for successful deployments of Mining 4.0 technologies is better connectivity in the mines.

Currently, WiFi is the most commonly used communication technology in the mining industry. However, despite acceptable coverage and performance characteristics, which have delivered a new level of productivity, the experience with WiFi has not been flawless.

Early adopters of autonomous haulage systems (AHS), such as Rio Tinto, Fortescue, BHP, and Codelco, have identified Wi-Fi–bandwidth performance and latency, concerns around stability and the use of unlicensed/unprotected radio spectrums, including a recurring drop in Wi-Fi performance due to external spectrum conflicts, as significant limiting factors in wider deployment of AHS at their mining sites.

To mitigate these issues, mining companies are looking into the application of high-performance, cellular communication protocols that can provide a whole range of improved performance/efficiency and safety measures and enable more reliable in-process integration of autonomous Mine 4.0 technologies.

While some applications only need to send minor amounts of data, others, such as Level 4 and Level 5 AHS, need the capabilities and capacities offered through mobile communications, especially 5G. There are many applications, such as complex drilling, automated trucks, ore sorting, asset health and process state monitoring, and automated planning and dispatch, where 5G networks and cellular IoT will be required to control assets, handle multiple 3D video and sensor streams, manage highly complex tasks remotely, and enable edge and near-real-time cloud computing.

Compared with other communication options, including 4G, only 5G can comfortably handle the most demanding requirements associated with these tasks – bandwidth, quality of service, latency, and positioning. The flexibility of 5G will also support different services with very different requirements, so that critical and high priority services with strict requirements are protected while, in parallel, less critical services with less strict requirements are still supported — each service will have its specific network slice, supporting its specific requirements (concept of network slicing).

As a part of the strategic partnership between ADRE Lab and Rogers Communications to advance 5G research in Canada, Dr. Mišković and his research team have developed the first 5G testbed for intelligent cyber-physical systems in mining in North America.

The main objective of the testbed is to enable development and testing of novel 5G and mobile edge computing solutions for localized mine core networks; automation, supervision, and control of operational assets; connected sensors; and distributed control centers, all to improve operational efficiency and sustainability across a mine value chain.

Availability of Rogers’ 5G network capabilities, combined with a number of mine- and mill-specific IoT devices developed in ADRE Lab, will provide a testbed for studying key features and potential benefits of 5G communications in mining including coverage, reliability, latency, accuracy in positioning, bandwidth, and its ability
to run multiple devices, sensors, or remotely controlled machines and processing units.

When the 5G communication coverage is offered, the mining industry will be one of the areas ripe for innovation and implementation through the development of mobile network-dependent applications. All of this can be translated directly into value and can create opportunities for both the mining industry and the ICT sector enabling
them to play complementary and profitable roles within their respective business models and allowing them to utilize the 5G technology more efficiently.

Initially, the testbed is focused on two specific 5G use cases that are showing the highest potential for early adaptation in the mining sector (Figure on the next slide):

  • Level 4 and Level 5 AHS (including automated dispatch), and
  • Predictive truck maintenance.

In this project, the network functions virtualization (NFV) is used to enable replacement of network functions on dedicated appliances — such as routers, load balancers, and firewalls — with virtualized instances running as software. This permits for a physical network to be separated into two virtual network slices that will support two types of services considered in this project:

  • The first network slice will be assigned for the “mission-critical low latency” service necessary for Level 4 and Level 5 AHS.
  • The second slice will be the “massive IoT” slice assigned for the predictive maintenance service. This slice will be used to connect all embedded [health monitoring] sensors and edge compute modules with the 5G NFV distributed cloud computing environment.

Combining distributed cloud technology with virtualized network functions (VNFs) will allow the VNFs to be deployed based on performance and other specific use case requirements, enabling easier optimization, management, and maintenance of the testbed’s network.

The newly developed testbed will serve as a stepping stone in the process of building an all-inclusive mine 5G network, representing a full spectrum of connected assets and services at a mine site.