Ericsson private LTE network playing a key role in Komatsu AHS deployment at Boliden Aitik

In a recent blog post, Ericsson's Filip Mestanov, Industry & Ecosystem Manager, Mining and Kirstin Sym-Smith, Director of Business Development, Mining Industry, Ericsson North America review the telecomms major's role in the autonomous truck project at Boliden's Aitik copper mine in Sweden, where a fleet of Komatsu 930-5 electric drive mining trucks is being fitted with Komatsu's FrontRunner AHS. The authors state: "Too often, what's limited growth of automation in the industry is not necessarily the will or the technology itself, but the communications infrastructure. The networks powering and linking the automated devices and processes need to be robust, secure and powerful - latency especially is a critical factor in a high-stakes business.

Aitik is Sweden's largest copper open-pit mine. There, ore is mined around the clock and the mine's operator, Boliden, has a long collaborative history with Ericsson as they've pushed the boundaries of digitisation. Boliden has a reputation as a company for being very efficient, and as being early adopters of a digitalisation strategy - but the company knows they need to continue to innovate to stay ahead of competitors."

The AHS deployment is result of a two-year planning process, this automation will help Boliden increase overall productivity, decrease cost per tonne and optimise asset utilisation, all while improving safety. The collaboration between Boliden, Ericsson and Komatsu was the first between the three companies in Europe, and when fully up and running the automated system will be the first of its kind in the EU. "The first step on the road to automation is the right network, and here Boliden turned to Ericsson Private Networks.

In this instance, the decision to employ a single, purpose-built, private LTE network provided the reliability, capacity and resiliency the mine operator needed to enable intelligent automation. Private networks help provide the robust prioritisation controls needed to ensure that the most critical traffic is always a priority on the network. They can also help create more predictable data traffic flows, by prioritising critical traffic to the network, leaving things like sensors or less critical functions to WiFi or other connectivity solutions."

The article states that earlier, WiFi-based networks at Aitik were stretched to the limit as the operator began its digital journey, and shared spectrum solution are often subject to interference. The constant elevation changes in an open pit mine made reliable connectivity difficult to maintain, and required constant addition of new access points - causing disruptions not only in the network but in the business itself. "To increase productivity through automation, there has to be reliable connectivity and less disruption to communication. Machines that aren't connected cannot work as efficiently and aren't aware of their surroundings.

This kind of connectivity becomes critical especially as the mine starts to automate - connected machines are more aware, they become more reliable, more productive." The Komatsu FrontRunner system is being used to operate a few distinct functions at Aitik, including truck haulage. "Automated vehicles provide the opportunity to reduce the risks often associated with humans working in dangerous environments. Taking away these risks enables operators to develop their skills in a safer working environment outside of the pit, which helps support Boliden's current staffing challenges." Another process that is being automated is drilling and blasting.

This is not only a productivity gain for the operator but a safety one, as blasting is not an optimal work environment for humans due to noise and vibrations. In addition to the FrontRunner system, Komatsu will provide assisted operations support (analysis of behaviours, mine plans, training, etc) to help the Boliden team realise the full benefits of AHS. Komatsu also offers a suite of operational and machine software developed by Modular Mining, such as DISPATCH, a fleet management system, which can help operators manage refuel assignments, direct complex shift change logic and increase payload management capabilities.

"Beyond the safety and productivity increases the automation systems bring, implementing mining automation as part of a broader digital strategy allows data collection in the moment, rather than in post-processed reporting. This will enable Boliden to monitor, in real time, the state of equipment in the mine as well as productivity. That can all add up for Boliden and other mine operators - with the volume operations like Aitik handle over the course of a year, saving a few hours of trucking time can add up to substantial savings on operating costs."

The article continues: "As the three companies look to the future, this project can help the mining industry glean insights into how to commercialise automation technologies at scale. Smart mining operations are projected to increase threefold until 2025, so LTE and 5G networks will need to be in place. And while the network at Aitik is LTE, there is an option for a smooth migration to 5G in the future.

These automation systems, and the networks that support them, have to be customised to the circumstances at each individual mine, and to the challenges the operator is facing.

That takes collaboration, an open dialogue and an end-to-end knowledge of connectivity solutions.

Ericsson, along with partners like Boliden and Komatsu, is committed to bringing the connectivity that will empower digital transformation for mining operators."