PARTNER FEATURE: The potential for 5G networks to drive digital transformation in vertical markets is massive; one early success story is the launch of the first private 5G mining deployment in Africa.

Leading operator MTN teamed with Huawei in 2022 to establish a 5G-connected coal mine operation at Canyon Coal’s Phalanndwa colliery in Delmas. Delmas is a farming town situated east of Johannesburg in Mpumalanga, South Africa.

Phalanndwa colliery is a big operation; it produced over 1.7 million tons of coal in 2022. Indeed, the mining sector is a vital part of South Africa’s economy, contributing 8% of GDP, around US$32 billion, and directly employing half a million people.

But mining is an industry fraught with danger and challenges. According to provisional statistics, 49 workers died in South Africa’s mining sector in 2022. The industry also reported several serious injuries that year.

There are also challenges around the operational efficiencies of mining in South Africa. It is believed that 5G could enable up to 25% more ore production, over 40% more drill rig operations and 20% more energy savings by supporting automation and remote operations.

The ability for a dedicated private 5G network – running off Huawei’s Cloud technology and incorporating solutions from smart mining specialist Minetec – to improve both the safety and operational efficiency of the Phalanndwa colliery was therefore key to the project.

In 2023 Huawei and MTN implemented two major solutions in the Canyon Coal mine to improve safety: 5G video system and a 5G + IoT Proximity Detection System to prevent collisions of vehicles.

The 5G Video system offers a range of benefits. 5G can provide high bandwidth to upload and download high-definition videos. These can then be managed and analysed to improve accuracy and efficiency. For example, number plate identification allows staff at the colliery to analyse images in order to distinguish vehicle license plates and then compare them to a whitelist to ensure the vehicle is registered or authorised to enter the secured area.  

In essence, 5G video surveillance can check the mining area 24/7 to prevent illegal intrusion. In the event of malicious intrusion, the system can detect and send alarms to the relevant response teams.

Meanwhile the 5G + IoT Proximity Detection System (PDS) prevents the collision of vehicles and potential of fatalities by detecting vehicles near an enabled vehicle, sounding an alarm.

Vehicle-to-person collisions are a risk at mining bases because the large construction vehicles often have significant visual blind zones where people can inadvertently place themselves in great danger. Vehicle-to-vehicle collisions, often caused by driver carelessness, also run the risk of human casualty as well as financial loss. The PDS deployment enables an alarm to be activated when a vehicle comes within 5 metres of a physical object and auto braking then kicks in at a distance of 2 metres.

Operational efficiency
The number plate identification system outlined as part of the 5G video system improves operational efficiency at the colliery by automatically detecting the vehicles that enter and leave the mining area without the need for human intervention.

But there’s additional optimisation at the mine thanks to Huawei’s 5G smart conference system that provides remote meeting facilities integrating projection, whiteboarding and conferencing into a convenient communication process.

As part of the smart conference system Huawei’s private 5G network is coupled with a CPE and the vendor’s IdeaHub meeting panel platform to provide an effective working environment for colliery employees and improved communication.

“Phalanndwa colliery offers the perfect combination of the right technology with the right scenario, where the ultra-high bandwidth and ultra-low latency of 5G allows real-time communication among the mine workers,” said Fortune Wang, CEO of Huawei’s South Africa carrier business.

The 5G private network at the colliery adheres to the most stringent security elements. The deployed solutions and services are fully independent and self-contained on the private network. There is no interfacing to MTN’s consumer core 5G network, all operations or faults on the consumer core network will not affect the private 5G network.

In terms of data security, the private 5G core is a Kite L-type Solution. It protects critical assets with network isolation, data protection and device/user authentication. It keeps the data sovereignty and ensures that sensitive information, such as production data, is stored locally.

AI boosting efficiency
As part of the 5G private network,MTN is deploying Artificial Intelligence to perform automatic detection and ore screening, which can significantly increase ore production. Should the conveyor belt break, the system will alert relevant parties to shorten the repair time. The intelligent sorting system uses x-ray capabilities to screen ore, efficiently identify ore grade and reduce waste ore refining, improving ore screening efficiency.

A smart market
Phalanndwa colliery’s smart mine is a pioneer case study in the potential of the 5G private network market. A recent GSMA Intelligence report found that while private 5G is offered by 12% of operators today, the expectation is that the majority of operators will offer private 5G by 2025.

“As most operators are going through internal organisational changes and reviewing their budgets for the coming years, they should ensure enough resources are allocated to private 5G solutions. This is also in line with when most operators plan to launch 5G beyond connectivity services,” noted the report.

Indeed, the project has achieved improvements in many areas – the most important being safety enhancement and productivity increase – but is also notable for its potential to scale further and provide greater benefit to MTN and enterprise customers.

MTN and Huawei have successfully deployed 5G based solutions in more than 7 mines in South Africa, including POC and live implementations. The duo are working with a wide variety of ecosystem partners and all parties are now creating innovative business models to generate strong returns on investment.