MEC to X: Sharpening the Edge of Mining


    Feb 23, 2023

    Living in a 5G world brings us lightning fast Internet access, rollercoaster experiences through VR and XR, and more immersive interactions.

    Whatever takes your fancy, the possibilities of 5G are endless.

    5G is ubiquitous & the core network of a powerful engine

    It even opens up new ways to be increasingly networked with the things around us. On top of this, 5G undoubtedly helps us live better lives by increasing our work efficiency and promoting more connections in an exponentially complex world. That said, this only constitutes a minor fraction of 5G’s true value. What 5G means to individuals already seems to be a stale topic. But 5G is also drastically revamping a myriad of industries in terms of digitalization.

    5G Core, like the brain of the entire telecom network, is without a doubt playing a pivotal role throughout the digital transformation process.

    5G+MEC: Fast-tracking the digitalization of verticals

    As 5G-based digital transformation gains momentum, we have seen disruptive changes catalyzed by 5G’s key features: Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communication (URLLC), and Massive Machine-Type Communications (mMTC). These features have revolutionized vertical sectors such as mining, iron & steel, ports, manufacturing, healthcare, education, and much more. At the same time, these changes have raised our expectations for stronger network capabilities and also ignited our passion for further unlocking 5G networks’ potential to benefit society as a whole.

    As such, industry stakeholders, including CSPs, device vendors, and standards organizations, are trying to pair 5G with other cutting-edge technologies, hoping that such marriages can give birth to more exciting results.

    What is MEC?

    Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC) is one of these cutting-edge technologies. It was first unveiled by ETSI in 2015. At its core lies the concept of edge computing, which was defined by the Edge Computing Consortium as follows:

    “Edge computing is performed on an open platform at the network edge near things or data sources, integrating network, computing, storage, and application core capabilities and providing edge intelligent services. Edge computing meets the requirements of industrial digitalization for agile connections, real-time services, data optimization, smart application, security and privacy protection”.

    Edge Computing Consortium

    In addition to these capabilities, it also emphasizes edge-network synergy and edge intelligence. With network capabilities placed at the network edge, numerous services can be processed locally, nullifying detours through the central network.

    A standard 5G MEC architecture consists of user plane functions (UPFs) on the 5G Core, an MEC platform (MEP), industry applications, and virtualized network infrastructure. It is situated in close proximity with end users, enabling them to experience large bandwidth, ultra-low latency, strong computing capabilities, and rock-solid security. Meanwhile, it significantly reduces the cost and management complexity of 5G devices, and seamlessly integrates into various industries.

    MEC to smart mining: higher safety, efficiency, and reliability

    According to the Global Mobile Trends 2023 report from GSMA Intelligence, MEC is still trending in 2023, and offers significant business opportunities to the energy industry, especially mining and oil & gas.

    Mining has always been an essential component of socioeconomic development. As a primary energy source, coal is excavated from underground or open pits. Safety is paramount for all mining operations, especially for those taking place underground, as workers are exposed to a wide range of health and safety risks, from gas poisoning to explosions and structural failures.

    Statistics gathered at the National Conference on Safe Production in Coal Mines (January 7, 2020) show that in 2019 alone, Chinese coal mines had witnessed 170 fatal accidents leading to 316 deaths, with the accident rate per one million tons of production standing at 0.083. This rate represents a level observed in medium-developed countries. It is five times higher than that in the US and 11 times higher than that in Australia.

    Due to safety concerns, labor-intensive workloads, and uncompetitive salaries, young people are increasingly reluctant to work in mines, flipping the industry on its head in terms of low retention rates and an aging workforce.

    Traditional mining is hard and dangerous / Coal mine in Shanxi, China / Video source: Huawei

    In addition, underground monitoring poses multiple challenges due to the complex nature of the environment.

    Let’s take the gloves off and peel beneath the surface of the mining ecosystem, exposing all the nitty-gritty parts. Up to a few hundred meters below the earth’s surface lies a long and meandering main haulage passage, a fully mechanized face, transportation facilities, and electromechanical chambers. At the core of the mine, the fully mechanized face needs to stay mobile and operational at all times, with operations supported by electrical devices in electromechanical chambers. After the coal is excavated, it’s transported from the fully mechanized face to the cleaning center above ground via conveyor belts.

    If any safety risks are overlooked when devices are operational, severe accidents may happen. Within the mine, wired networks that are put in place fall very short of the mark when it comes to efficiently inspecting both devices and personnel. And network cables are subjected to extreme heat and humidity levels, which raise the risk of fire and other failures.

    Within the mine, wired networks that are put in place fall very short of the mark when it comes to efficiently inspecting both devices and personnel.

    When all of these issues are combined, they can potentially cripple routine device O&M and pose highly significant hazards.

    Conventional mining is thus facing three major challenges:

    • Inadequate safety
    • Monitoring efficiency
    • Network reliability

    Thanks to the combination of 5G and MEC, these challenges can be addressed through the digitalization of the industry. Put plainly, a 5G network can fulfill wired-to-wireless network upgrades and cover both above and below ground, reaching every corner of a mine. With eMBB, URLLC, and mMTC, 5G facilitates backhauling of audio and visual information captured by all kinds of sensors, so that mining devices can be remotely and efficiently monitored and controlled. With an MEC system placed in a mine, all types of data, including monitoring information, production data, and video footage, can be processed by local servers equipped with novel software applications.

    All devices and personnel in a mine can be looked after in a comprehensive yet timely manner.

    To fulfill stringent requirements on security and reliability, 5G Core network functions can be deployed locally with the MEC system. If the edge UPFs in the mine fail to communicate with the public 5G Core, these local 5G Core network functions can take over, ensuring stable wireless communications and data transfers across the mine.

    Such a scheme is put forward by Huawei. Inspired by kite-flying, Huawei named it the “Kite-like” private network solution, as the private network built in the enterprise campus is akin to a kite connecting to the central network and ensuring always-on services.

    Yanjiahe Coal Mine: An industry pioneer

    Yanjiahe Coal Mine is located in China’s Shanxi province, with a production capability of 600,000 tonnes per annum. Recognizing the potential of 5G+MEC, the mine is transforming its operations through digitalization by overhauling its network in collaboration with China Unicom and Huawei.

    Yanjiahe mine’s network has been reshaped under China Unicom’s One Telco Cloud framework, which features centralized network capabilities for fast slice provisioning, efficient network construction and O&M, quick service innovation, and continuous delivery and testing.

    On top of this, China Unicom and Huawei reused the existing network functions and helped the mine quickly construct a kite-like private 5G network. The network has replaced the optical fiber network previously used in the mine. It can efficiently transfer video streams captured by the HD cameras installed around tunneling devices, transportation transfer points, and vehicle yards. Once the video streams are backhauled to the video content analysis system, safety risks, like conveyor belt misalignment, large or stacked coal pieces, and personnel not wearing safety helmets, can be identified and pushed to the central monitoring center with an intuitive information alarm.

    The mine’s 5G private network also includes a 5G Core control plane plus a unified edge gateway, enhancing the reliability from 99.99% — an average level of generic private networks — to a true carrier-grade 99.999%. This means that the network can run as normal even if it fails to communicate with external networks.

    Today, the mine’s core production has become more efficient and automated. Excavators can be remotely controlled from above ground for unstaffed operations, while the key devices on the fully mechanized face can be centrally controlled from the mine dispatch and command center. This has helped the mine move workers from underground to aboveground.

    Powered by MEC and 5G Core, Yanjiahe Coal Mine has successfully transitioned to a safe, people-oriented, and smart mine. China Unicom’s existing network functions have been inherited and reused on the private network, and its O&M approaches, teams, and experience are fully re-utilized, reducing OPEX. As for Huawei, the Kite-like solution has found its first successful commercial use in the mining industry.

    MEC to X: More than digital mining

    5G Core and MEC are key to the successful upgrade of Yanjiahe Coal Mine. 5G-compatible devices, innovative technologies, and advanced applications are also important factors contributing to its success. For instance, a novel dust-filtering algorithm is applied for 5G cameras in the mine, so that clear images and videos can be generated from the dusty and misty environment that the equipment is subject to underground. In turn, the smart mine project has also led to price reductions of 5G terminals and modules involved in mining. The unit price of 5G industry modules has decreased from CNY¥1,500 (approx. US$218) two years ago to about CNY¥450. This will also push mining equipment vendors to develop more 5G-capable devices.

    Therefore, to take smart mining to new heights, all industry stakeholders need to join forces to explore the 5G smart mine market, and promote the sustainable development of the mining industry.

    As a prime example, the Yanjiahe mine’s network solution is being applied across over more and more mines in China, and will offer important references for digital transformation for those outside China. Beyond mining, major players in the oil & gas and chemical industries can also learn from this experience, thereby unlocking better business and social value.

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    Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.


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