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Looking to the skies: Satellites solving miners' communication issues

Bnamericas Published: Thursday, September 01, 2022
Looking to the skies: Satellites solving miners' communication issues

Technology is playing an increasingly important role in connecting mining operations and monitoring the safety of expensive machinery and equipment, while also helping authorities fight against illegal mining.

Javier Pinilla, commercial director for Latin America at Globalstar, a company that offers satellite communications solutions and works with miners in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Peru and Ecuador, talks to BNamericas about the interplay of mining and technology.

BNamericas: What are the main technological challenges facing mining in Latin America at the moment?

Pinilla: The great challenge in mining is how to have communication in places where there’s no terrestrial infrastructure, how to extract information and transmit it.

When we talk about mining, we're talking about remote places, where terrestrial infrastructure doesn't reach. It arrives with machinery, with people, with portable power plants.

Communication is a very important factor, because it covers everything from productivity to risk issues. The great technological challenge is how to have all communication and how to be interconnected or connected from totally isolated and remote places.

That's the great challenge that we have from the technological point of view, both us and the players in mining around the world.

Another challenge is to make people understand that satellites aren't tied to high costs. We have satellite communication for all machinery at very reasonable prices, very comparable to what cellular communication costs at present in places without terrestrial coverage.

BNamericas: Faced with this connectivity challenge, what solutions does the market offer for the different stages and types of mining?

Pinilla: The market now has lots of communication options.

When you're at a site that isn't too far away or a site with high volume potential, many players offer connectivity over cellular networks. When you're in more remote places where you don't even have terrestrial infrastructure, what’s offered is satellite communication, which doesn't depend on infrastructure, but simply needs a view of the sky.

Those are the two great angles of communication for mining.

Obviously, the different types of mining have to be taken into account because, for example, for large-scale mining, large cellular companies arrive and establish a private network for communication, but there are also medium-sized and small ones, or ones that were small and become gigantic, which are plentiful.

BNamericas: What technological solutions does Globalstar offer for different types of mining?

Pinilla: We're one of the most important solutions for all types of players, because our solution is satellite and it allows communication anywhere in the world, which is very important for the industry.

Companies don't have to talk to a third party that carries the signal via land, see where it gets the energy from, put up the repeater antenna, which takes time. We offer the satellite signal ready to operate and start reporting. All you need is a view of the sky.

One of our solutions even has equipment with a solar panel, which means that the company can also get around the energy issue.

We want to be the solution for the small, medium-sized and large miner.

Our equipment allows you to send all the information you want through the satellite constellation, and it is seen in the framework, encryption or platform that's needed, just as you want to see it.

At Globalstar we've made a new development that is RealM, which encompasses next-generation hardware and software solutions.

This solution allows AI-enabled asset tracking and intelligent data processing at the edge, dramatically reducing streaming, product and development time costs.

We make it possible for people to have the information they need, not just what they can. That is, you get the exact information you want to get, what you need and when you need it.

For example, we brought the largest manufacturer of sensors to work with us and now the sensors transmit the information to a platform capable of reading it, responding to the needs that are presented to us.

BNamericas: From the perspective of security in asset management, how important are satellite systems for mining companies?

Pinilla: Very important because, for example, a small and cheap backhoe costs US$600,000-700,000, a paver almost US$4mn. Imagine if these machines are stolen.

Many people may think that these machines aren't stolen, but they don't know that there's a big market for them in illegal mining. These machines don't go unnoticed in the city because of their large size, but they use them in rural areas, in the middle of the jungle.

In terms of security, it’s essential to be able to know the position [of machinery], not only due to theft, but also due to environmental issues.

In Colombia there's the Illegal mining law, which seeks to ensure good use of natural resources and avoid mining at illegal sites.

The law states that a machine that has a blade that rotates 360 degrees must report its position to a police platform every hour. The police arrive at hot illegal mining sites and check that all the machines are there, if there's another one that's not registered, that doesn't have a permit, it's not seized or confiscated, it's dynamited.

BNamericas: How much does this system contribute to combatting illegal mining, which is a serious problem in various countries, including Colombia?

We've worked hand in hand with the government, with the police and we've seen how a platform that started out very small today has the capacity to support a large amount of information.

We're currently one of the biggest players in detecting illegal mining through our solutions.

We have a good number of teams in Colombia registered with the police, who are reporting their position and we've handled some very interesting plans. We've even developed communication plans that work all year round at very attractive costs.

BNamericas: Where is satellite technology heading in the future?

Pinilla: When costs are massified, the equipment begins to shrink in size, and that's very much in line with what we are as low-orbit satellite technology. That means that it has lower energy consumption and there are greater benefits.

Talking about equipment a solar panel four years ago was crazy. We're going to benefit the user in costs, characteristics, size, prices, amount of information. 

In the not-too-distant future, imagine exchanging an entire video stream in real time, things like that.

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