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The rise of private wireless explained

Almost a decade ago at a remote mine in north-western Australia, a Rio Tinto engineer was scratching his head over why their autonomous trucks kept grinding to a halt, seemingly without reason. A lot was riding on this experiment, even more than the 360 tons of ore that they were carrying. 

The experiment was an early foray into autonomous haulage systems or AHS. Unlike the driver-assist capabilities in some of today’s cars, AHS systems operate in relatively closed environments and are fully autonomous, functioning without drivers. Marc Jadoul, at Nokia Enterprise, explains how AHS systems operate safely. “The trucks use high-speed wireless networks to get their work orders and to report to central control on whether their safety systems are functioning so that other vehicles and workers can operate safely around them.” 

In a 2019 article in International Mining that examined the different autonomous truck solutions in detail, the author concluded that whatever the approach, “the performance of these trucks only tends to be as good as the communications infrastructure they are tied to.” 

Which was exactly the lesson that Alan Seery learnt at Rio Tinto in 2011, as he puzzled his way through why the trucks kept stopping. As the Principal for Infrastructure and Communications Strategy at the mine, Seery discovered that on the top of the hill where the problem was occurring, there were six different communications network infrastructures supporting nine different networks.  

It turned out that a third-party contractor had commissioned a Wi-Fi link to connect two nearby buildings together. The interference from the Wi-Fi link was messing up the communications network supporting the trucks. Unable to connect to the central system, they were programmed, for safety reasons, to stop. 

Alan knew there had to be a better way. Besides the safety issues of a 400-ton machine suddenly stopping, the lost productivity was making the experiment unfeasible; it would cost the mine millions in lost time per year. Following an audit of all wireless applications, it became obvious to him that only a licensed-spectrum solution could provide the assurance that the business needed. And so, the first 4G/LTE private wireless network in the resources industry globally was born in Australia. The network went live in August 2013 and has been supporting mining operations at Rio Tinto ever since.

Alan Seery is now Chief Operating Officer at Aqura Technologies, a company that provides technology solutions to industrial customers, including mining and resources. When asked about his days at Rio Tinto, Alan smiles and says that Realizing that almost 700 autonomous trucks have been deployed globally today, of which 80 percent are in Australian mines, makes me proud of the pioneering work we did 10 years ago. The fact that many of the autonomous trucks are supported by private wireless proves that we made the right technology choice.”

The fact that many of the autonomous trucks are supported by private wireless proves that we made the right technology choice.

 At that time, private wireless was a new concept and there was no private spectrum to run it on. Alan and his team worked closely with the Australian regulator to release spectrum for their own use, which led to a big turnaround in the use of 4G/LTE at Rio Tinto. For the networking technology, they turned to Nokia, a major supplier of 4G/LTE to mobile operators around the world.

Private wireless refers to the private use of wireless technologies that historically have only been used in public mobile networks, either 4G/LTE and, going forward, 5G. Engineered to provide connectivity to people in a wide variety of indoor and outdoor environments, in high-speed trains and cars, these 3GPP wireless technologies are also far more secure, able to provide very high bandwidth and with a high degree of predictability. Because they were designed to deal with the kind of extreme interference that you get in dense urban cores, the issues Alan Seery was confronting at Rio Tinto were trivial. 

Today, private wireless spectrum is being made available in many markets globally, and mobile operators are sharing their spectrum and offering private wireless solutions along with other players. The result is that private wireless, along with technologies like AI, machine learning and industrial IoT, is helping to fuel the Industry 4.0 revolution. 

The demand for private wireless networks is taking off, having hit a tipping point in 2020.

Stephane Daeuble, who heads Marketing for the Nokia Enterprise Solutions Division, says that “the demand for private wireless networks is taking off, having hit a tipping point in 2020, and it is powering the digitalization of industrial sites in almost all asset-heavy industries.” According to Daeuble, “Nokia has seen a doubling of its industrial customer base in the last year. Industry 4.0 is taking off and companies require reliable wireless to connect all

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