As the newest generation of mobile technology, 5G has dramatically transformed many industries, not the least of which is mining. Formerly dependent on manual labor, mining has evolved into a high-tech industry that incorporates remote driving and 5G-enabled unmanned smart mines.
At the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Shanghai earlier this year, many eyes were on a booth exhibiting a remote control platform for excavators and live stream of onsite excavation. This mining site belongs to China Molybdenum and is the world’s only 5G smart mine in operation. 30 5G autonomous mining vehicles have been deployed, and the company’s monthly capacity is 500,000 tons.
How did China Molybdenum achieve this? At the 2019 Customer Strategy and Pain Points Analysis Conference (CSPA), COO and Chief Engineer Yang Hui from Yuexin Intelligence shared with the audience the great value 5G contributes to the construction of smart mines and explained how China Molybdenum introduced 5G technologies. According to Yang, 5G is ideal for smart mine construction and mining is the new “battlefield” for the business use case of 5G technologies.
COO and Chief Engineer Yang Hui from Yuexin intelligence speaks at the 2019 Customer Strategy and Pain Points Analysis Conference
China Molybdenum has been replacing its 4G technologies with 5G technologies and has been improving unmanned mining through 5G network development and technologies such as short-range control, long-range control, control of single vehicle, centralized management, and smart management and control since 2015. This initiative relies on the concerted efforts of many companies, including Huawei, Yuexin Intelligence, and of course China Molybdenum itself.
Minimizing risks through unmanned mining
There are two main types of mining techniques: surface mining and sub-surface mining. Surface mining has absolute advantages in terms of mining scope and safety, and various technologies have been developed for it. As a result, most mines have adopted this technique over the past ten to 20 years.
Statistics show that there are more than 3,000 surface mines with reserve deposits of over 20 million tons in China. It would cost around CNY200 million for each of these mines to invest in intelligent mining equipment. If a manufacturer can occupy just 10% of this market, its market prospects are on the order of CNY60 billion.
However, safety is still a major concern in surface mine operations. In such complicated terrain, large machinery can fall at any time. “I once saw an excavator disappear while it was in operation,” said Yang Hui. “Later, we found it in a 30-meter deep pit.”
In the interest of keeping miners out of such dangerous environment, the mining sector has long been exploring the possibility of unmanned mining.
Three challenges for unmanned mines
Unmanned mining involves enabling equipment and machinery to function without requiring manual operation, especially with regard to autonomous driving. As many people have realized, the relatively closed-off mining area is a viable scenario for implementing autonomous driving.
Unmanned mining is being quickly adopted in other countries too. The mining sector giant Rio Tinto Group is leading the world in the area of intelligent mining, according to Yang.
At the remote control center in Perth, staff of Rio Tinto can now remotely control unmanned trucks, trains, drills, and the like at the Pilbara iron mining site, a 2-hour flight away in Western Australia. Compared with other countries, China has lagged behind in unmanned mining. There are only few unmanned mining projects in operation that generate real benefits. The main reasons for this are as follows:
First, there is a lack of application scenarios. Mining equipment is expensive. For example, a single vehicle costs at least several million CNY. Purchasing new equipment is too big a risk for mining companies.
Second, there is a lack of core technologies. In recently years, research into autonomous driving has mainly explored driving on roads in cities. No particular research and development has gone into autonomous driving in the field of mining.
Third, market preferences mean that no technological breakthroughs in mining-specific autonomous driving are on the horizon. While autonomous cars on urban roads or expressways are a market darling and attract significant investment, autonomous vehicles for the mining industry are less favored, leaving a gap that is hard to fill in a short time.
Building sophisticated unmanned mines in five years
To fill this gap in the market, Yuexin Intelligence has been working hard to explore unmanned mining. China Molybdenum and Yuexin launched their unmanned mining project in 2015, deploying remote control technology to address the safety issues relating to extraction activities in mining voids. These safety concerns had been plaguing the company for years, according to Yang Hui.
Yuexin Intelligence led the project, going through the project charter stage, research and development, prototyping, trial production, commissioning, trial run, and final production. Short-range remote control became a reality in 2015. Long-range remote control in 2016. And in 2017, self-driving trucks were successfully tested.
“At that time, we were content with remote control,” said Yang Hui. “In dangerous areas, we remotely controlled excavators to dig out the ores and then the remotely controlled trucks to load and transport ores. This did not improve efficiency; on the contrary, it made the process more cumbersome,” said Yang Hui.
Remote control technology did help enable the extraction of high-grade ores previously off limits due to safety concerns, but mining efficiency has stayed the same. What kind of technology can be used to fully automate mining operations, without involving humans in the field?
By 2018, remote drills, remote excavators, and a fleet of 30 driverless electric haulage trucks empowered by Yuexin Intelligence were put into use. The solution allowed drilling, shoveling, loading, and transportation to be fully automated, without the need to deploy any on-site staff.
Most notably, Yuexin substituted 5G for 4G, enabling a dramatic increase in productivity. Production capacity shot up to 500,000 tons per month. This was the first time that 5G technology was deployed in the mining industry in China.
5G enables more efficient and safer intelligent mines
There are a couple of reasons why Yang says 5G is ideal for mining. First, mines are generally located in remote areas where network coverage is weak, so a dedicated network needs to be constructed. 5G is a great option, as it is relatively easy to build a 5G network.
Second, most of the mining machinery is constantly on the move, so a mobile network is needed. In addition, as blasting is frequently used in mining, fiber networks are not realistic. Third, in the case of surface mining, only a few cell sites are required to cover the entire mining site.
5G unmanned mines are able to meet multiple needs: HD image backhaul on mobile devices, intelligent scheduling systems for autonomous driving, cloud computing, and wireless transmission of massive numbers of HD images.
5G networks also enable key breakthroughs in autonomous driving for intelligent mining. First, before 5G, each truck used to need an onboard industrial computer installed to process data. Once 5G is deployed, all data is transmitted from the vehicles to a cloud server for central processing.
Second, low latency is crucial to the application of autonomous driving technology for mining. According to Yang Hui, only after latency is reduced to under 30 ms will operators be able to control autonomous driving vehicles without feeling any lag. And only then will traffic and operational safety be assured. The 5G network, with its low latency, has enabled long-range remote control to become a reality after stagnating for many years. It also increased the speed limit of autonomous mining trucks from 10 km/h to 35 km/h, improving transportation efficiency.
Last, 5G enables a positioning precision of less than 1 meter. Replacing GPS with 5G positioning in mines reduces the cost and facilitates more-effective management of personnel and vehicles. Referring to the various costs relating to deploying 5G technology for mining, Yang Hui said that the number of 5G-ready devices (such as 5G CPE) necessary for intelligent mining is small, so equipment cost is not as high as it rumored to be.
5G creates other kinds of value for mining, too. Chief among them are addressing safety concerns and improving production efficiency. For Yuexi Intelligence, operational precision, stability, and efficiency have been greatly improved with 5G technology. Looking at the case from the larger industry perspective, the practice of the 5G unmanned mines is also applicable to other surface mining sites, and serves as an important reference for the use of 5G in traditional industries.