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Connectivity still a peeve in 2019 for African mines: Where to focus?

The mining industry is so colossal that I thought it would be genuine to set off the first among several conversations not in terms of sectors (crushing, maintenance, drilling, processing, tunneling, underground mining, etc.), but connectivity, for what it is worth, which I believe is one of the most sensitive aspects in mining as it touches all those sectors.

I want to be more specific here, otherwise, this discussion may take us to a lengthy journey and I am not a mining guru to pursue such a venture or share all the lore about it.

By connectivity, I mean all the IT infrastructure used to transmit real-time data from sensors placed on vehicles, machines, etc., to check the amount of fuel, temperature, vibrations and so forth, also known as telemetry, which is critical in mining and its operations. Yet, it seems not to ‘butt-in’ in mining experts’ discussions very often as it should be.

So, I’ve recently had talks with a few experts in mining pertaining to IT infrastructure who are based in South Africa, Zambia, Uganda, Rwanda and Congo, and what has stemmed from our chats proved my first intuition on telemetry being critical and ignored to be right.

 

Before I elaborate, let me give you a background of the conversations we’ve had.

 

1.Hot potatoes, though not out of the woods

Most with whom I spoke, pardon me not to mention names here, reported issues such as: costly maintenance,underground mining issues with methane concentration( a phenomenon recurrent in Central and Eastern Europe,e.g. Russian mines), delayed information and 10% to 35%(insane) of fleets affected by inadequate IT infrastructure, outdoor temperature affecting engine using diesel fuel, aging systems, problems to deploy a proper communication network around sites, weak bandwidth, life safety issues.

Moreover, employees on the mine’s speed movement, who, if not motioning after 10 mins approximately, it implies that something wrong might have happened to them, and if motioning too fast, it means that an individual might be riding a carriage, which is strictly forbidden, not the least, and believe me, even baboons and elephants were arraigned! Crazy right...

 

I presume the mining experts who watched ‘Madagascar’ may have enjoyed the topsy-turvy moves wild animals are portraying in the movie while dancing on ‘I like to move it’.

 

Nonetheless, there is no such hilariousness among decision makers about the aforementioned issues, and those are not solely African problems. South, Central, and North Americas, Europe, Oceania and Asia have the same botheration. Though, very few mines are rather well equipped than others. For instance, digital twins, drones, partly or autonomous robots, Artificial Intelligence, and other cutting-edge tools are used to better productivity and operations.

 

From my modest understanding, I believe two or three major shifts are taking place or being scribbled throughout the marketing plan at the moment in Africa, and perhaps in the mining industry in general:

 

1) Finding a way not to be dependent on diesel or massive gas-emission sources of energy, and use more electrification for reducing carbon discharges or tackle surrounding temperatures which affect diesel-dependent engines, and we know how harsh, hot and sandy/dusty, the environment can be.

However, there is a significant detail about diesel I was told by Ossie Carstens after he'd read this article:

Water contamination in diesel is probably the single biggest contributor to diesel particulates in the atmosphere. It would be nice to know the quality of diesel from delivery on surface to consumption point underground.

You may also check his contribution on Mining Weekly

2)Adapting operations to digital transformations (machine learning, IoTs, virtual reality, and other digitalized moves), which I believe might affect several jobs (mines supervisors, communication network engineers, etc.)

3)The third aspect encompasses the two above as it is more of optimization of processes, relying less on humans, that is, more automation.

 

However, we all know that when it comes to money, the financial department does always see such initiatives as scroungers, let alone mounting operational costs, unstable electricity stream, and fuel upsurges which do not facilitate things. But, do not get worked up by the usual bureaucracy.

 

2.Better telemetry with mesh networks?

So, long story short, what’s the fuss about connectivity? And how this can prove to be ONE of the problem-solvers? Probably, there are better solutions to address the many problems mines in Africa have out there, and reasons to have the current solutions than what I suggest below. Anyway, I will be glad to hear from you, no shame to back down.

 

This is what I personally think can improve connectivity and most issues I have mentioned earlier, mesh networks. How? Well, I believe they can support and help streamline all shifts happening at mines. Very few mines in America, and Europe have started to adopt this technology along with the three shifts I’ve described earlier. For example, Rio Tinto and Boliden AB, who are important players, have adopted this technology, thus, it stands to reason that there might be some cost-effectiveness resulting from the use of such technologies, indeed, if all else fails or remains inefficient.

 

3. How can mesh networks help?

·    Easiness to backhaul information from SCADA multiple sensors around trucks and shovels enabling their 24/7 monitoring

·    Reduction of the fleet turnover and repair queuing time

·    Partly or fully remote control of operations

·    Smart Wi-Fi and self-healing proofed, better uptime and robust stability sustaining operations involving people and machines

·    Miners real-time monitoring while moving underground to anticipate or react quickly should any emergency or laissez-faire occur. For example, Wi-Fi ships inside helmets, torches, etc.

 

The advantages are numerous, but I would like your thoughts on this if you happen to stumble on this article. Here is the question pondering over me, why is that none of the experts during our dialogue mentioned mesh networks? Have they used them before and they failed? (which I am not sure since I was not able to gather such a fact). Or maybe other reasons I am not apprised of, lie behind the IT infrastructure currently used in Africa and elsewhere.

 

I will be glad to hear your constructive criticism. Kindly share your thoughts chaps! hakuna matata!

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Fabrice Fosso

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