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The future of mining in Africa: digging deep with IoT

27 Apr 2021
Peter Malebye

Peter Malebye

Managing Executive for IoT, Vodacom Business

The pace at which digital transformation is sweeping across industries continues to increase rapidly in response to COVID-19. There is no doubt that many businesses across all sectors have leapfrogged several years of progress within a matter of months.

Digital technologies are empowering millions of people around the world and providing businesses with unparalleled opportunities for value creation and return on investment.

Yet, despite great promise in digital advancements across the mining value chain, the industry has historically been slow to grasp the enormous benefits of tech-enabled transformation.

In the early years of the digital revolution, mining – like many other industries – experienced a disconnect between expectations and reality. Early progress did not keep pace with slow adoption rates and implementation challenges, which were all hindering factors.

In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, CEOs rated digital transformation risk as their top challenge, highlighting the difficulties they experience in ensuring digital transformation initiatives reach their targets.

This has been echoed in the mining industry. EY’s Top 10 business risks and opportunities – 2020, ranked “Digital & Data Optimisation” third in their list of risks and opportunities facing mining and metal. In 2019, it ranked as number one.

However, this slight shift down the list reflects a real sense in the mining industry that things are changing especially in the face of new challenges, including volatile commodity prices, declining yields, challenging labour conditions, regulatory changes and upward cost pressures.

Given the new opportunities and challenges for mining companies in Africa, it’s clear that digital technologies are beginning to create value. And the chasm between expectation and reality is beginning to close.

Enter the Internet of Things

New and cutting-edge technology – particularly the Internet of Things (IoT) - is helping the industry meet key challenges, with 70 percent of mining companies saying that IoT is essential to gaining a competitive edge, according to Inmarsat’s ‘The Future of IoT in Enterprise’ report.

We’re encouraged to see how mining companies are beginning to cautiously invest in IoT-based projects, with many reporting that their deployments are already impacting their bottom line.

This comes as no surprise given IoT’s numerous positive benefits for the mining industry, including the ability to reduce costs, increase productivity, reduce downtime, and improve the safety of workers while streamlining operations.

Challenges and cornerstones

However, if the sector is to get the most out of its growing investment in IoT, there are considerable challenges to overcome.

Connectivity is often limited, especially in underground mine sites and remote locations; ore grades are declining, resulting in mines having to dig deeper; cyber security approaches are insufficient; there is a skills gap in the industry; and data is not being used to its full advantage.

For the mining industry to fully benefit from digital transformation and IoT, it will need a robust and resilient network designed to support its strategic business needs.

To do this connectivity will be key.

It’s the cornerstone upon which all digital transformation projects are built.

Leveraging the power of IoT to transform mining

This is why our partnership with IoT.nxt to enable the end-to-end provisioning of IoT solutions for the mining industry is so important.

IoT.nxt is a software development company that builds IoT solutions for global businesses.

Its technology allows systems, processes, machinery and ‘things’ to become truly interconnected and interoperable, delivering a clear overview of what’s happening in every part of the business’s ecosystem, without disrupting operations.

IoT in action

To support this commercial launch of a joint ecosystem, we ran a 5G connected mining vehicle trial with Aard Mining Equipment, a 100% South African owned manufacturer of underground trackless mobile machines.

Together with IoT.nxt, we set ourselves a target of resolving some of the biggest issues facing the mining industry when it comes to connected vehicles, including a lack of real-time insights, automated alarms, notifications, and analytics for mining vehicles.

We installed an intelligent edge gateway on one of Aard’s newly manufactured mining vehicles. Known as Raptor, this gateway is a device developed by IoT.nxt to transform an ecosystem into a multilingual hub of innovation and communication.

In addition, we provided real-time alarming notifications on IoT.nxt’s cloud-based platform - all underpinned by guaranteed Vodacom 5G mobile connectivity.

Our aim was to demonstrate the ability to display alarms and notifications in real-time to ensure the safety of the vehicle operator and surrounding workers. We also wanted to improve the decision-making process with data-driven insights that will ultimately increase productivity and asset utilisation.

The results were impressive and stand as testament to the tangible outcomes mines can achieve when empowered with IoT technologies and high-capacity connectivity.

Not only were we able to capture alarms, notifications and telemetry in real time but we were also able to improve safety outcomes by identifying when an operator failed to close a vehicle door or when an operator was speeding.

But what does this mean for the mining industry?

This means that we now have a treasure trove of data in one place, meaning we can build new use cases on top of this to transform operations. For example, we can build a predictive maintenance use case to lower costs and increase efficiency by not having any downtime during the servicing of the vehicle.

While the pandemic has indeed exposed the siloed nature of mining companies, it’s also highlighted the need for integrated operations, which are accelerating the adoption of digital technologies like IoT.

And it’s clear that the future of mining will depend on a robust, reliable, low latency communication system and premium grade connectivity to ensure productive and safe operations – all of which 5G was designed to support.

Discover more about how 5G and IoT can help you build a business for the future.

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