Mining's push to unlock significant value from data and information is moving into a higher gear in Australia, where some of the world's leading mining companies are starting to leverage 4G LTE to address security and reliability issues with older technology and tap industrial IoT gains transforming other industries. A fast-growing local ‘start-up' is at the forefront of the mining shift.
Aqura Technologies co-founder Travis Young says the mining industry's digital transformation is building demand - and pressure - for reliable, high-speed connectivity.
The Australian-based company is working with tier-one, and increasingly now mid-tier, miners to enable them to optimise returns from digital strategies.
"We see a growing gap between the investment in the industry in digital transformation technologies and connecting to the field data to achieve the value outcomes that are promised," Young says.
"Traditional wireless connectivity [principally Wi-Fi] is now a choke point in realising the benefits promised by digitally driven mining.
"Our focus is on delivering the connectivity that enables remote operations, real-time mine planning, artificial intelligence and so much more."
Young, an experienced IT executive, says 4G LTE offers the coverage, carrier-grade reliability, low latency and speed digital mining applications demand. At one major mining operation a recent upgrade to 4G LTE produced a 2,000% decline in issues associated with throughput, dropout and other communications issues, and significant productivity boost, with the operator now focused on upside to come via progressive integration of other data streams into the new network.
"4G LTE is the best option for a converged, high-performance wireless network that can reliably convey the rapidly increasing amounts of corporate, voice and video data generated from operations," Young says.
"Wireless connectivity in operations will need to leverage 4G LTE to securely and reliably carry the significant diversity in data that Industrial IoT is starting to create.
"Our track record in delivering 4G LTE networks across surface and underground mines, has seen extensive in-house skills and reference architectures developed. But the real benefit for our customers is our ability to translate this to support them to gain the value from their investment in 4G LTE. We've integrated dozens of applications to operate across our 4G LTE networks which changes the conversation from an infrastructure investment to a value-realisation one."
Edge connectivity needs to be the enabler
Aqura chief technology officer Alan Seery says without 4G LTE, many mines and operators will "continue to juggle the congested, criss-crossed Wi-Fi networks that won't fully enable the returns from their digital strategies". Deloitte's recent Tracking the Trends Report in Mining 2020 global report said up to 50% of a mining company's digital spend would need to be allocated to "below the line technologies ... from basic infrastructure updates, to improved Wi-Fi and connectivity".
"We feel that Wi-Fi has some place," says Seery. "But organisations need to look beyond to 4G LTE and have a roadmap to 5G in the next 3-5 years.
"The opportunity for operations to converge data, voice and video is fuelling conversations to future-focused technologies such as Mission-Critical PTT over LTE. Digital twins, another example, are a fantastic step forward to support productivity and safety. But unless connectivity at the network edge can support it, opportunity realisation can be compromised.
"The integrations on offer to support digital mining applications and systems will be key to unlocking the significant investments being made in digital mining. The integrations we offer will guide automated equipment across mines, carry the data to generate the insights, and connect people in the field to be more productive and safer in their work."
Seery says major mining and construction equipment manufacturer Komatsu has predicted some of its mining equipment will generate half a million data points per second by 2023.
"Aqura is gearing to support mining operations to securely connect this data to the vast computing resources required to extract the value and feed it back to support near real-time optimisation," he says.
"The growth in connected things is accelerating at a pace that many are struggling to define.
"Our industrial wireless platforms are geared for the demand of current digital operations and can support the future Industrial IoT growth that is predicted. With agreements in place with a global mobile provider and enabling private LTE networks for industrial IoT, Aqura is able to provide extended coverage for the growing number of IoT devices that are rapidly becoming a greater part of normal operations."
Making tech easier to acquire
Aqura chief operating officer Pravin Bechar says the company's traditional delivery of advanced communication solutions via capital-intensive, bespoke engineering, procure and construct (EPC) projects is now complemented by other commercial models.
"While mid-tier customers have an appetite for Aqura's solutions, they may not have the appetite for large capital projects and the resources that supporting the technology requires," Bechar says.
"Our team has worked closely with a range of vendors to introduce next-generation products into the market that can leverage an as-a-service approach.
"We now offer LTE-as-a-Service through clever configuration of core technology to benefit a number of users whilst maintaining performance and security, in a similar way that cloud providers share available capacity of their infrastructure.
"Solutions delivered as-a-service are backed by our Australian-based support team, allowing customers to focus on their core business."
Bechar says Aqura's Autonomous Remote Communications (ARC) platform is an LTE-as-a-Service option getting market attention. The integrated satellite backhaul, 4G LTE solution can be rented or leased to make upgrading remote communications straightforward for operators.
"ARC is generating a lot of interest in exploration companies as programs can be rapidly accelerated with near-real time drilling results being shared with centralised teams to analyse results and adapt drilling programs rapidly," Bechar says.
Supporting worker well-being
Aqura's Content Access Network (CAN) offering, providing end-user optimised connectivity for streaming, communications and other internet services, is another option suitable for smaller accommodation precincts, down to exploration camps.
"With the smart-bandwidth matching technology in our CAN solution, we optimise available backhaul bandwidth [satellite or fibre] and ensure end users gain a quality access to entertainment and personal communications. These are fundamentals to ensure positive wellbeing when working for extended periods in remote locations," Bechar says.
Enhancing customer workforce well-being is part of Aqura's value focus.
A customer-centric culture
Young says the company's internal business mantra also emphasises speed, responsiveness, collaboration - and an environment in which staff thrive on new challenges.
"With something akin to a start-up culture, we have delivered multi-million-dollar projects for billion-dollar multi-nationals, and yet have the flexibility to respond to the needs of smaller clients. This combination of being in an agile team that can scale so flexibly is not common and we believe is one of our strengths, too," he says.
"Bureaucracy is not welcome, which encourages thinking creatively to deliver solutions which are beyond the norm.
"We actively encourage a collaborative culture between teams, with no silos, underpinned by our ISO accredited quality management framework, with the flexibility to ensure our people can move quickly to overcome challenges our customers face.
"Diversity of work is also a significant driver of Aqura as a great place to work. We're a technology business and have a number of firsts to our name. Our team are actively encouraged to investigate and trial new technologies in our lab to overcome the challenges that our customers share with us.
"The organisation has invested in a dedicated lab environment which enables our team to develop and validate solutions. This environment forms a core for our sizeable training and certification program to grow the capability of our people. This commitment has been recognised by our partners, in particular one global vendor which has confirmed we are their highest qualified partner in the APAC region.
"This is important as our in-house team thrive on the challenge, but also appreciate the opportunity to apply those solutions in a pragmatic way."