5G mining project goes underground

A few months ago, we launched a collaboration project to explore 5G technology in the context of mining. Underground mines are hazardous and challenging environments, so remote control of machinery has a lot of potential to improve both productivity and safety. The mines also provide very interesting research challenges for communication networks!

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Since project kick-off in August, we have been working with designing and planning the installation of a mobile test network inside the Boliden mine in Kankberg, north Sweden. Yesterday, we went underground to collect measurements and other input for the final stages of the design.

Our project is called PIMM – Pilot for Industrial Mobile Communication in Mining – and had its formal kick-off in August this year. It’s an industry pilot and research collaboration between Ericsson, ABB, Boliden, SICS Swedish ICT, TeliaSonera, Volvo Construction Equipment and Luleå University of Technology. You can read more about it on our project website.

The overall goal of the pilot is to improve productivity and safety in the mining industry, with solutions based on 5G enabling technologies. Remote control of heavy machinery underground is the most challenging of the use case we have selected – more specifically, we will remotely control a 30 ton wheel loader from Volvo CE, that handles ore in the Boliden operated Kankberg mine.

Kankberg is one of the most advanced mines in the world, in terms of connectivity and automation, which makes it the perfect place to test out solutions of the future. Now we will bring in state-of-the-art, 5G enabling technology and do hands-on testing of our ideas and concepts.

So what are the concrete plans? We’ll roll out new radio infrastructure from Ericsson in the mine and connect it over fiber networks from Boliden and Telia to Telia’s mobile packet core network. For some tests, we have the option of using other core networks to support different mining applications with varying requirements. The Ericsson radio solution is based on the latest distributed radio network technology and will give excellent performance for many different services, also when moving around in the long underground tunnels.

The first site visit by the infrastructure team in PIMM was very much down to earth (!), trying to decide where to actually install the active antennas, in which cabinets to house the more sensitive equipment and in which cabinets to inter-connect the different networks [from each of the partners]. Experiencing the rough walls of the mine provided good understanding of how those will impact radio performance. The tunnels are narrow, so when vehicles move around, there is a risk they block the radio signal, which must also be considered.

The concrete walls are reinforced withmetal flakes, so the radio propagation properties are interesting to investigate.

"After today’s visit, we know exactly how to inter-connect the fiber networks”, Michael from Telia and Stefan from Boliden agree.

Actual installation and integration will happen early 2016, and then functional and performance testing can start. The wheel loader will be brought down the mine a bit later (after some initial functional tests above ground), and at that point we will really challenge the performance of the new Kankberg infrastructure. Additional requirements on 5G to support industry transformation may be found. We’ll keep you posted on the developments!

Peter de Bruin
Master Researcher Ericsson

Boliden about PIMM

Telia about PIMM

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