HANNOVER, Germany–Based on conversations with executives from network infrastructure vendors Nokia and Ericsson during the Hannover Messe industrial fair, both companies see the mining industry as a huge opportunity for driving private network sales.

So, of all the industrial verticals to pick from, why mining? Well, first it’s a fundamental driver of global commerce–mining operations extract the raw materials manufacturers turn into the goods sold into other industries and also to consumers. In terms of quantifying the industry, PWC tallies global mining operations as having a market cap in 2018 of $926 billion with the majority of output coming from China, Russia and U.S.

Ericsson’s’ Erik Josefsson, head of advanced industries, explained the company’s focus on factories, warehouses and mines. “Those are controlled environments. Mining is by nature a very interesting area because they have a problem with coverage. In the past they have started to put cabling in; it’s very inflexible. They are very eager to see the benefits of cellular. Mining is a very exciting area.”

Josefsson said using connectivity to automate mining processes holds “significant value” for many reasons, but chief among them that it’s incredibly expensive to pump oxygen into mining environments. Safety is a primer driver of investments in mining automation. He explained remote operators of mining equipment need “to have a fully immersed experience of what it’s like down in there,” including movement, haptic feedback and even smell.

Working with mining interest Boliden, Ericsson replaced Wi-Fi with cellular connectivity. Specific to the operation of drilling rigs in a mine, replacing Wi-Fi with cellular could lead to annual increase in operation time of 40% to 7,000 hours per year.

Nokia’s Stephane Daeuble, head of industry vertical network slicing and private wireless networks solution marketing, was wearing a headband that read his brain’s Alpha waves, which gauge alertness, which was graphically measured on a smartphone application.

“So the truck driver doesn’t fall asleep at the wheel,” he explained. Remote monitors can watch the activity and gauge driver fatigue–if there’s a spike that would indicate the driver will fall asleep, the monitor can intervene “saving the worker’s life, saving the truck from crashing. This is a very simple application.” Despite the simplicity, it can’t be reliable done with LoRa, Sigfox or Wi-Fi. “It really needs to be something that has full confidence.”

Dauble explained that one mining client was struggling to achieve appropriate coverage and capacity with Wi-Fi, spending years trying to solve the problem with radio experts. Nokia came in and replaced 150 Wi-Fi access points with about 15 small cells.

Sandvik is working with Nokia to develop LTE and 5G private networking for mines using the vendor’s Digital Automation Cloud. Sandvik’s VP of Automation Riku Pulli said the collaboration is an “important part of our strategy to develop open, interoperable solutions for future mining needs. Enhanced connectivity is critical for smarter and safer underground operations.”

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