For all the challenges facing the mining industry and all the opportunities, cloud technologies represent a key platform that can support true digital transformation.
The cloud enables integrated data continuity. Cloud computing infrastructure can provide fast, large bandwidth connectivity. Not to everyone, everywhere yet, but perhaps soon.
Satellites in Space
Satellites could transform the way miners explore, extract, automate and even sell and market natural resources, according to authors of a 2021 Accenture report, who contend that “mining is a perfectly logical match for the satellite industry.”
Combined with unmanned drones, satellites can provide off-grid broadband communications, high-resolution imagery, and precise geo-positioning services to aid a range of mining activities, including autonomous equipment monitoring and operations as well as early-warning systems for safety and environmental incidents.
As of June 2021, more than 6,500 satellites orbit the earth at various altitudes, about half of them inactive. Plunging construction and launch costs are expected to soon push that number much higher. By 2025 as many as 1,100 satellites could be launched each year, according to the 2020 State of the Satellite Industry Report by the Satellite Industry Association (SIA). By 2029, the SIA estimates that some 30,000 satellites will be in orbit, perhaps more than 100,000.
More satellites in orbit provided by multiple vendors could lower the “cost to play” significantly, with subscription and cloud-based tools replacing expensive upfront capital outlays for servers and land-based communication equipment. Miners could decide to launch their own satellites, given declining launch costs, or rent space on a satellite for their own devices.
5G on the Ground
All this orbital capacity means that miners will need to be able to manage more real-time data on the ground. With 5G and artificial intelligence (AI), the goal of remote monitoring and control of automated processes is within reach.
As part of that transition, miners may need to provision 5G broadband Internet to remote mining areas where Internet access is typically unavailable or unreliable. Doing so enables real-time data analytics, digital twins, remote operations and automation.
SpaceX’s Starlink satellite program, for example, is already providing broadband Internet access to isolated, hard-to-reach regions. Due to the distance transmissions must travel round trip from space, Starlink’s current speed of 150Mbps is far slower than the gigabit speed of fiber on Earth, but the concept is proven. Satellites and 5G have the potential to deliver the cloud to the mining industry.
Pieces in Place
With a cloud and 5G infrastructure, mineral exploration and development can be improved with better geo-positioning and geophysics, 3D terrain imagery, remote communications and cloud-enabled data management and analysis. Extraction can be automated. Ore stockpiles and waste dump volumes can be monitored along with survey and mapping data and pit slope and tailings dam data. Processing activities can be improved along with weather analytics and gas emission detection. Supply chain security, transport and marketing activities can be more efficiently monitored and managed.
And finally, the cloud can safeguard institutional knowledge at risk of being lost by the exodus of an experienced but aging workforce and outdated technology with storage formats that make translating code from legacy equipment difficult.
Cloud platforms enable digital twins that connect these physical systems, both human and material, to virtual systems, so that enterprise knowledge can be institutionalized and continuity ensured against loss.
However, even considering a future with sophisticated communication technologies where cloud technology is deployable everywhere with the minimum specs required, a system of systems configuration fully enabled by cloud computing may not be fit-for-purpose for every scenario across the mining industry. As discussed in our earlier article, the challenge is knowing when, where and how to use the cloud based on a mine’s unique circumstances and the company’s specific goals.
Although cloud technology is a key enabler for transformation in the mining industry, change management must not be underestimated on this transformational path. To the mining industry, the vision of an electrified and autonomous mine where solutions are tested out in the virtual world before their physical implementation represents a transformational change that requires a different mindset involving new ways to describe challenges and innovative solutions to address them. Cloud is one among many technologies in the toolbox!
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