Advances in satellite communications have meant the technology is fast becoming an affordable reality for the mining sector, providing significant advantages for digital connectivity in remote areas.
With the advent of new communications constellations, the future of digital mining solutions may well be in the skies.
According to Sandeep Kumar, head of satellite services at Telstra Enterprise, Australian miners would be wise to embrace the technology now to harness current and future benefits.
“The biggest advantage of satellite is its coverage and fast deployment,” Kumar told Australian Mining.
“You cannot put fibre into the ground within weeks, it can take months to years – several months of planning and months of execution on top of that. There is also huge capital cost.”
Looking at coverage, Kumar points out that the infrastructure for terrestrial networks may not be possible or commercially viable in extremely remote locations.
“Satellite coverage is ubiquitous around the globe, regardless of location. It goes beyond landmass and into ocean bodies, even air,” he said.
“Importantly, you can put a satellite link in quickly right now. Depending on the requirements, you could potentially roll out connectivity in days.
“For example, you could hook up a satellite trailer to a four-wheel drive and have instant connectivity. That’s the freedom you get with satellite.
“That cannot happen with LTE (long-term evolution wireless broadband), or with fibre, unless it is pre-built.”
Previous constraints with satellite technology – namely their high latency and the cost – are getting resolved with the availability of new orbits. Latency is the time it takes for the signal to transmit data from one communication endpoint to another.
“Traditionally, we have used geostationary-earth-orbit (GEO) satellites which match the orbit of the earth as they travel and are positioned at an altitude of 36,000km,” Kumar said. “While they get a lot of coverage, it comes with a cost of high latency due to their distance from earth.
“But now we have constellations that are closer to earth which include medium-earth-orbit (MEO) and low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites.”
The latency of MEO and LEO satellites is significantly reduced.
“We have MEO satellites that are approximately 8000km away from the earth, which means latency has been reduced by a factor of one third, offering fibre-like performance,” Kumar said.
“The LEO satellites are closer again, between 500–1200km away from the earth’s surface, meaning the latency factor is reduced by another third or even more, which brings us closer to the performance of an LTE network.
“The MEOs and LEOs changed the game in terms of satellite becoming more of a standard technology.”
Kumar provides an example of a gold mining operation in Papua New Guinea where an MEO satellite service has enabled the miner to leverage the productivity and cost savings of digital transformation.
“The MEO satellite service provides the mining operation with more capacity to support digitalisation and automation at an affordable cost and, just as importantly, extends the service beyond corporate use,” Kumar said.
“Our customer sees the health and wellbeing of their employees as equally important to the expansion of the digital capabilities of the mine, so providing employees with a level of connectivity where they can have video communications with their families was deemed essential.
“The MEO solution we came up with enables that.”
Other innovations, such as high-throughput satellites – which are purpose-built for data – and flat-panel antennas are also making the use of satellite technology more efficient and affordable. Kumar cites another example of where remote services can benefit.
“We have been collaborating on some recent trials with emergency services in Western Australia where they have fitted vehicles with a flat panel antenna to connect to a GEO satellite solution,” he said.
“This enables them to connect back to the operation command through a broadband type of service. It provides them with real-time information and data flow from their location to command, supporting applications such as live streamed videos.”
Kumar makes the case that satellite technology has come a long way in recent years and that with new developments coming to market, mining companies should consider investing in satellite networks to support their digital capabilities.
“There’s a lot happening with LEO constellations and equipment at the end user terminals, including terminals that now have a port which supports extensions into future low latency systems,” he said.
“I would say to mining companies, embrace the technology and embark on a new journey with satellites. It’s a lot more affordable and there is a future path.”
This feature appeared in the July issue of Australian Mining.