Thought leadership
    24 June 2021


    Creating Vital Data Stability For Mining Operations

    Vodacom's Mobile Private Network solutions provide mines with a reliable data backbone, IoT, data analytics, and more.

    The mining sector is no stranger to innovation. One of the earliest examples is the well-known canary in the coal mine to detect lethal yet odourless gasses. Mines were the first adopters of commercial steam engines - used to pump water out of shafts. Today, as the rest of the world wonders when autonomous vehicles will be a common sight on the roads, mines already operate fleets of self-driving hauling trucks and other equipment.

    Such advancements streamline operations, reduce costs, and improve worker safety. According to Reportlinker.com, Randgold Resources used automation to reduce its quarter-on-quarter injury rate by 29%.

    Yet, for all their digital ambitions and successes, mines face a challenge with their networks, which are increasingly unable to meet the requirements of data-heavy and automated environments. Were a mine an office block, those problems could be resolved with relative ease. But the highly variable, remote and hazardous sites used by mines and similar sectors (such as agriculture and mining) require something more robust and specific to their needs.

    The Challenge

    A modern mine has three primary goals for technology: improve automation, insight from data analytics, and workplace safety. All three elements benefit immensely from a reliable network. Yet mining sites are often beyond the pale of what standard networking solutions can provide.

    Numerous mines have to rely on more traditional networking solutions, which often doesn't work well for them. Installing a cabled network on mining sights is expensive and in some places completely impractical. You aren't going to run network cables into an open-pit mine. They fill the gaps with Wi-Fi and microwave, but those systems are notoriously unreliable. It's incredibly difficult to guarantee performance with a service-level agreement. So, mines have access to a lot of digital potential but the network is their main barrier.

    Such potential is apparent from different use cases. Mining equipment - so-called Big Yellow Machines - embrace the benefits of automation and onboard sensors. A massive drill rig can run remotely with the operator sitting in a safe location. Data from truck routes can plan more efficient schedules. Predictive maintenance data avoid costly breakdowns. Driver fatigue systems keep employees alert and focused on safety. Smartwatches can track employee health and locations, helping ensure dangerous areas such as blast sites are not occupied.

    Small or big, open or underground, mines are spoilt for choice when it comes to digitally-enabled improvements on their sites. But that is all moot if a network cannot keep up with demand. For example, a remotely-operated drill losing connection results in hours of downtime and millions of rands lost. Unreliable connectivity to monitor health and safety could result in a costly mistake that takes lives and imperils mining licenses. But get factors such as health & safety and automation right, and a mine can anticipate uninterrupted 24/7 operations.

    This situation is very frustrating: the future is within reach, but networks cannot sufficiently close the gap to warrant investment. Fortunately, there is an exception: the private mobile network from Vodacom Business.

    The Solution

    Vodacom Business has been deploying private mobile networks (MPNs) for mining and manufacturing customers across the globe, including open-pit mines in Australia and large car factories in Germany. It is now introducing this terrific advantage to the Southern African market, bringing networks in line with the digital opportunities’ mines want to deploy.

    An MPN is precisely what it sounds like: a series of base stations that run a private network on LTE and complementary mobile transmission standards calibrated and secured explicitly for one or several mining sites. This scalable approach deploys base stations that can be repurposed as the site's needs change, and Vodacom's celebrated networking excellence underpins it. Thus, Vodacom Business can support the network with an SLA.

    But this is not merely an answer to mining's networking challenges. Vodacom Business' MPN offering includes features to enable and integrate data-driven operations, whether they haven't existed before or work with existing capabilities from other vendors. One example is how the Vodacom Business solution connects mining trucks.

    Every modern mining truck is full of sensors that gather valuable information and typically already have a wireless connection. We don't replace that. Instead, we provide a breakout module that connects the WIFI to the MPN so that the wireless and LTE systems communicate with each other."

    Vodacom Business achieves a comprehensive solution for mining connectivity and data transport by involving key partners. It collaborates with IoT trailblazer, IoT.nxt, to provide next-generation sensor integration and data-collection services, using IoT.nxt's virtual Raptor system to integrate with almost every mining equipment vendor's products. The collected data can be sent to an IoT.nxt server located at the mine's datacentre, into the mine's proprietary systems, or integrated into other data and analytics platforms from different vendors. If the mining operations wish to expand their analytics processes, Vodacom Business works with hand-picked consulting houses to develop the best approach.

    Data is relevant for strategy and improving operations, such as selecting better routes for vehicles. It can also inform on equipment conditions, enabling predictive maintenance and emerging concepts such as digital twins. Worker safety is heightened through remote control of machines in volatile conditions, active monitoring of employee health metrics such as heart rates, and creating hotspots to ensure the wrong people aren't in the wrong places.

    Vodacom Business' MPN solution is holistic: it does not rip-and-replace but instead introduces a reliable SLA-backed networking capability that shapes as the mining site requirers. Vodacom Business is renowned for its hands-on, customer-sensitive project management approach, placing its people on-site to act in the interest of the mine as if the customer were their employer. This approach ensures that even in large and complex deployments, mines still have access to the insight and support to realise any modern technology system they want to test or operationalise.

    So why choose Vodacom Business? We leverage the power of Vodacom's world-class mobile network technologies and expertise. We can guarantee uptime where others can't. We then fit this into the unique context of our customer, using our partners and international project use cases to deliver exactly what is needed and expand those investments with new opportunities. We offer a holistic end-to-end approach, and where we don't have the internal capabilities, we recruit from our trusted partners to get the best - but our customer only has to engage with one provider. We deliver a reliable network and concurrently reduce the complexity of enabling a mine's digital estate.

    From canaries to self-driving haulage trucks - mines are always looking for the next advantage they can gain through technology. Now they can remove the biggest barrier to those data-driven ambitions - unreliable networks - and they can maximise their investment by complementing what they already have on-site and using a partner who can expand their digital horizons. Thanks to Vodacom Business and its Private Mobile Network offering, the 21st-century mine can keep growing and prospering in Africa.

    Why Vodacom Business

    • The leading network provider with a robust national network, proven international implementations, and domain-expert partners.
    • A focus on problem-solving, integration with third-party systems, present and ready for hands-on engagement with customers.
    • The MPN solution is secure, scalable, suited for deployment across one of several sites.
    • Provides, in conjunction with IoT.nxt, broad and deep integration with mining equipment and sensors.
    • Fast and reliable deployment, meeting and often beating deadlines.
    • Vodacom Business takes the journey with customers, backed by always-available support and quick problem-solving

    Rodney Moloko

    Executive Head: Mining and Production at Vodacom Business

    Becoming future-ready

    Vodacom Business is here to help take your business to the next level. We offer a wide range of products and services to fulfil the telecommunications needs of organisations of all sizes. From mobiles and fixed-line connections to a wealth of broadband and networking solutions, you can count on us to keep you confidently connected.