Edge computing: the key to unlocking new opportunities in Australia’s mining and resources sector
By David Dzienciol, Chief Customer and Commercial Officer, NEXTDC

Australia’s mining and resources sector is emerging as a global leader when it comes to embracing technology megatrends as a route to innovation. We have a strong history of embracing new technologies to address universal industry challenges and priorities – such as worker and site safety, cost reduction, productivity, operational efficiency, and sustainability.

Both the Australian Government and the Minerals Council of Australia have pledged their support to the ongoing digital transformation of the sector. And while this transformation is happening at an unprecedented rate, we cannot take it for granted.

Technologies – such as the cloud, automation, artificial intelligence (AI), augmented and virtual reality, 5G, low earth orbit and geostationary orbit satellites, the Internet of Things (IoT), and robotics – are continuing to transform the way we live, how we do business, and the very nature of many industries. Australia’s mining and exploration industry is at the forefront of innovation.

What we lack is a clear and agreed vision for the end state of digital transformation for the industry. We talk frequently about the virtual mine of the future, but what does that really mean? To paint the full picture, it is critical that mining industry leaders come together with key partners in the technology industry to focus on long-term strategies.

We need to understand what the key initiatives are that will enable the next generation of innovation and deliver resilience to disruption, sustainable growth, and long-term positive outcomes. Industry utopia is only achievable if we move past the present reliance on piecemeal application of diverse technologies through complex integration.

Core-to-edge technology strategy: flexible, agile, smart

The development of a long-term vision for the industry boils down to a single question: How can technology be harnessed by the industry to deliver optimum value on remote sites – no matter the location, or the technology?

The tyranny of distance needs to be deposed and the harshness of extreme locations needs to be rendered irrelevant.

While we are all very focused on trends, such as IoT, the cloud and AI right now, we also have to be ready for whatever comes next because, at the end of the day, we don’t yet know what innovation these developments will enable. Now more than ever, we all know that things can move very quickly, and we have no real idea where the next great disruption will come from. So, it pays to have a vision and a strategy that is technology-agnostic and ready for anything. That is, one that is flexible, agile and responsive to external and internal forces.

Core-to-edge strategy is all about building capability to capture and process the large volumes of data that will power the virtual, fully automated mine of tomorrow – no matter which technologies and devices deliver that data.

It is a concept that demands investment in infrastructure and processes that enable the technology strategy from the core of the business in metro locations, right out to the production and distribution edges where the sensors and IoT devices are positioned to collect critical data from automated machinery and operations. At present, innovation potential from the real-time processing of data is limited because critical captured information must be transported back to the core processing power – whether that be physical or virtual – located in centralised operations via long-haul networks, before it can inform decision-making. The next generation of data-driven innovation, powered by iterative AI, can only be achieved with low-latency dependent applications that can manage enormous volumes of data in real time, with the support of high-dependence networks.

Cloud-based services are not available consistently near remote operational sites, which restricts the capability to innovate through utilising latency-sensitive applications that analyse large datasets to inform business and operational decisions in real time.

There are two fundamental components that are set to accelerate increased technology innovation in the mining industry: remote operations centres (ROCs) managing mission-critical teams and processes; and the edge data centres that provide interconnected, secure and resilient infrastructure close to the production, freight, and shipping operations. Let us explore each of these in greater detail.

Edge data centres

These co-location facilities are positioned close to the edge (or end users) of the network – i.e., as close to operational sites as possible to support latency-sensitive applications driving automation, production continuity and safety outcomes. They deliver much-needed interconnection to cloud computing, and high-speed national and international networks. They provide resilience, security and ecosystem access comparable to what is available in metro zones. Edge data centres also unlock substantial cost reductions and performance improvements because they eliminate the need to backhaul data between distributed operational and metro locations.

Ultimately, it is customer demand that will drive the deployment of edge infrastructure, and it is the resources sector that is leading the charge. At NEXTDC, we are proud to be collaborating with other infrastructure leaders to expand our network of edge data centres throughout remote regions of Australia. This includes our new Port Hedland facility, which is scheduled for completion in the second half of 2023. It has been designed, engineered and will operate to specifically support the emerging needs of the mining and resources industry in the Pilbara.

Centralised remote operations

ROCs (also called integrated ROCs) are the second critical component of core-to-edge strategy. This is the ‘control room’ that protects the mission-critical operations of the business. The ROC is manned by a central team with accountability for all data collection, monitoring and controlling all equipment across all locations, and coordinating operational control.

When established correctly, the ROC functions as a data-driven nerve centre of the business, with full visibility over the operational footprint. The ROC’s function is to ensure the continuity of essential processes and availability of personnel, and to connect the value chain from pit to port.

While ROCs are not a new concept, the current challenge comes from the full integration of capabilities into central operations, which prevents personnel from gaining true real-time visibility over the network and operations. Thus, there can be no real-time decision-making influenced by AI analysis of captured data. It is increasingly emerging that this challenge can be solved with investment in the right foundational infrastructure at the operational edge, as well as a core-to-edge technology strategy that is integrated right across the business.

A call to action for the mining industry

We are calling for leaders in the mining and resources industry – and those industries that support it across the mining innovation ecosystem – to embrace the concept of core-to-edge strategy. By leveraging edge-critical digital infrastructure, as well as resilient, high-performance interconnectivity and centralised mission-critical operations centres, digital transformation and the business objectives it is targeting can be accelerated, and Australia’s resources sector can maintain its global competitive advantage.

Successful digital transformation rarely happens in silos. We will only solve the issue of access if there is first a widespread shift in thinking by all in the industry towards embracing a collective approach with a clear, agreed vision of what it is we are trying to achieve.

Secondly, we must lean into the right mix of long-term strategic partnerships and investment to drive innovation across our world-leading industry. This will ensure that every partner is focused on doing what they do best, while enhancing flexibility and agility for the broader ecosystem.

By doing this, we will be taking the right steps towards ensuring that Australia’s world-leading mining and resources sector remains second-to-none for the rest of this century and beyond. 

For more information, visit www.nextdc.com.

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