The worst fear of those working several hundred meters below the surface of the earth is a cave-in – to get cut off from the rest of the world and run out of air.
But perhaps unbeknown to most of us who spend our days in an air-conditioned office, in a mine there may also be often-unnoticeable, hazardous fumes and crushing heavy machinery maneuvering even the narrowest passages.
Digitalization – however – could make mines both safer and more effective. Telia is part of a groundbreaking research project to find out how people’s lives can be improved and industry made more effective by getting fully connected down below.
It’s happening in the Kankberg underground mine in Boliden, Sweden. Within the Industrial Mobile Communication in Mining (PIMM) project, the latest technology for mobile communications has been installed to test its endurance in a rugged rock-and-metal environment where network glitches and downed communications could turn into a matter of life and death.
Telia, Boliden, Ericsson, Volvo CE, ABB, RISE SICS and LTU have joined forces in the PIMM project, to explore what the next-generation mobile communication technology, 5G, could do for the digitalization of industries, for personnel safety and for the crucial communication and automation in a mine. And in the Kankberg mine, Telia developed communication services.
“We have had the possibility, together with our partners, to truly explore the full opportunities of digitalization in an underground mine”, says Telia Sweden’s Magnus Leonhardt, Head of Strategy & Business Development. “Everything from using mobile phones 400 meters down in the mountain and remotely controlling vehicles, to connecting various mining equipment that can help make work safer for everyone in the mine.”
All partners in PIMM are technology-based companies, and Leonhardt explains that the willingness to collaborate has been unique. Volvo CE developed and tested their remotely controlled wheel loader, in which the operator sits in a ground-level office while using the loader 400 meters below.
Ericsson designed the mobile network in the mine, as part of their “5G for Sweden” program. ABB handled the ventilation system via the control function in the wireless connection’s cloud. Furthermore, most of these companies are Telia customers.
“This is where we want to be, in collaboration and on a learning curve to understand our customers’ needs in an industry that is vital to the country’s development. It is totally in line with our strategy to be there to support our customers as they want to digitalize their operations,” Leonhardt says. “We went into this project with an open mind and the ambition to understand an industry. And it is working.”
Also in line with strategy is some of the more hands-on results seen in Kankberg.
“We’re not just looking at efficiency and so on, but actually developing new solutions and adding value,” Leonhardt says, and refers to several examples.
One of these examples was the testing of smart rock bolts – rock bolts are used to secure the mountain walls after blasting. The smart bolts enabled online measurements and clear warnings. Also, a positioning system was developed to remotely control machines and to locate personnel in the case of an accident. Miners are now also able to use their mobile phones underground, with even better performance than above ground.
As the project now heads into Phase 2, Telia will run the digital ecosystem.
“We know that this – digitalization – is where business and industry everywhere is heading so we want to broaden the project here. Every one of us can learn and benefit from this,” Leonhardt says.
Eilert Johansson is the PIMM project leader and senior project leader at RISE SICS. He adds, “The project has exceeded the goals we had when we launched the project. We have seen so many innovative thoughts and ideas come to light within the project, and now they are being turned into reality.”