The intelligent transformation of coal mines is still in its initial stages
By Ge Shirong, President of China University of Mining and Technology - Beijing Academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering
Intelligent mining is the only way forward for the coal industry. What are the core technologies that will get us there?
At present, China has more than 3,000 operational coal mines and more than 2.8 million workers in the coal industry.
Technology plays a key role in helping coal mines to reduce carbon emissions, enhance worker safety and improve efficiency.
Next-generation digital technologies such as 5G, AI, IoT and cloud computing have already been tried as potential applications in the coal mining industry. This has sparked innovative technology such as private 5G networks, autonomous vehicles in open-pit mines, Mine-Harmony (an operating system dedicated to the industry), and digital twins.
But the intelligent transformation of coal mines is still in its initial stages. Although welcome progress has been made in the intelligent upgrade of single equipment or systems, we still have a long way to go in building intelligent systems for the whole coal production process.
Three key technologies will enable the mining industry to reach these goals: the industrial Internet (the Internet of Things); operating system; and digital twins.
First, we need to build a Mining Internet of Things (MIoT) that connects mines and all the various equipment in the coal mining system. This can help resolve longstanding problems such as information silos and insufficient data flow. By using an MIoT, the data and information of all production factors, processes, and value chains can be interconnected, integrated, and applied in real time.
Second, the industry needs an operating system enabling ubiquitous interconnectivity for coal mines. For equipment, we need to continue improving and promoting dedicated operating systems such as Mine-Harmony to unify data access standards and specifications. For systems, we need to develop middleware such as computing engines, 3D visualization engines, physical simulation engines, and AI computing frameworks to build a sound application development ecosystem.
Third, intelligent digital twin systems for coal mines should be created to visualize and efficiently manage the whole process, from coal production, transportation and sales to storage and usage. With the real time simulation and interaction between the virtual and real objects, the digital twins can supply predictive analytics and control over production processes and help prevent accidents.
MIoT: The peripheral Nervous system of intelligent mining systems
The industrial Internet will be the foundation for information management in intelligent coal mines.
At present, dozens of coal mines in China have established 5G-powered MIoT. With 5G’s quality performance of high bandwidth, low latency, and massive access, these mines can remotely operate the long wall cutting and tunneling with a single click start. Production processes will be more intelligent through HD video monitoring and remote control.
The MIoT is like the peripheral nerve network of intelligent mining systems. It collects and aggregates information across the industrial system, merges and shares data, optimizes resource allocation and unlocks industry value.
But many problems still need to be resolved to build the MIoT. First, the coal industry needs to understand the value of the MIoT and regard it as the cornerstone of intelligent mining. Second, we need to move faster to design the top-level architecture and build a technical system for the MIoT. We should incorporate requirements from all domains across the coal industry, including those for coal production, storage, transportation and sales, as well as safety supervision, industrial transformation and intelligent development.
Third, we need to develop MIoT standards and specifications faster. The coal industry also needs to act quickly on the top-level design and application of a standardization system, in order to provide unified communications interfaces and data specifications for sub-systems in production, safety monitoring and operations management in different coal mines. In addition, we should seek breakthroughs in core technologies, such as a unified and open identification and resolution system for mining equipment and parts, trusted privacy computing and security protection technologies for the MIoT and industry enabling technologies like industrial big data and AI.
Mine interconnection OS: The central nerve of intelligent mining systems
An operating system (OS) is the most basic component for an intelligent system. OSs have been evolving along two paths: standalone OS and Internet OS. Standalone OS is an operating system running on single devices, including desktop and mobile OS (e.g., Windows, Linux, Android, and Harmony OS) and embedded OS (e.g., VxWorks, uC/OS, Free RTOS and RT-Thread).
As network technologies evolved, a single computer became able to connect, communicate, and cooperate with other computers through the Internet, which resulted in Internet OS to supplement the standalone OS. These two types of OS have been learning from and increasingly overlapping with each other. New concepts such as cloud computing OS, robot OS and IoT OS have also emerged.
In the industrial automation field, distributed control systems (DCS) use fieldbus technologies like industrial Ethernet to enable equipment monitoring, human-machine interaction, process development, material management and so on. In a broad sense, DCS can be seen as operating systems for industrial applications.
In September 2021, China Energy Investment Group and Huawei jointly launched Mine-Harmony, an IoT operating system dedicated to the coal industry. At present, Mine-Harmony has been used in the Wulanmulun Coal Mine, in which more than 500 pieces of equipment from 18 suppliers are now connected by Mine-Harmony through its unique soft bus and near-field communications technologies.
As the central nerve of an intelligent mining system, the ubiquitous mine interconnection OS helps create an ecosystem for middleware and Apps used in the coal industry. This OS has a two-layer architecture, with a standalone OS for equipment on the first layer and an OS for industrial applications on the second layer.
The standalone OS provides a standard communications architecture and driver development framework for data flows and control flows at the equipment layer, and offers system services such as data communications services, resource management scheduling and application development framework for the application layer. The OS for industrial applications on the second layer provides complete middleware services for MIoT applications, such as business data management, industry knowledge model libraries, AI computing framework, visualization engines and physical simulation engines. The relationship between OSs on these two layers is similar to that between Linux and the Robot Operating System (ROS).
Two measures will be needed to accelerate the R&D and application of the ubiquitous mine interconnection OS. One is to strengthen basic research and make continuous breakthroughs in OS architecture, operating mechanisms, application structure and trustworthiness assurance. The other is to step up open-source efforts and bring together businesses, research institutes and individuals through open-source communities to promote iterative innovations of OS technologies and create an application development ecosystem.
Digital twins for mine: The brain of intelligent mining systems
Digital twins are an industrial digital technology that have developed rapidly in recent years. In 2020, we first proposed the concept of digital twins for coal mines and identified it as an essential technology for intelligent mines. And we also provided the architecture for mining digital twins, which integrates 5G, IoT, and bio-inspired intelligence technologies and the 10 key technologies for creating digital twins.
A digital twin for a coal mine is a virtual representation that serves as the real-time digital counterpart of a real coal mine, which is constructed on the ubiquitous mine interconnection OS and driven by the data from the MIoT. The digital twin simulates the behavior of the real coal mine by using mathematical models or some data driven algorithms. It can predict production conditions, make production processes visible and controllable and reduce production risks, acting as the brain of intelligent mining systems. Building a digital twin for a coal mine usually takes four steps.
First, create a discrete digital twin, such as the digital twin for a shearer or roadheader. This step focuses on the model creation of a digital twin, the interaction between real and virtual objects and the lifecycle management of the equipment.
Second, create a composite digital twin, which is mainly aimed at coal mining subsystems, such as the mine face or tunnel face or the main coal transportation system. The composite digital twin is created by combining the discrete digital twins and external digital resources, which aims to promote collaboration between multiple digital twins for equipment, interaction between equipment and environments, and monitoring and early warning of mine disasters. Currently, this is the main direction in the construction of intelligent mines.
Third, create a digital twin for the entire coal mine and whole production processes. This step aims to support safe and efficient coal exploitation and utilization through real-time data interaction, simulation and feedback between the real and virtual coal mine, and big data analysis and decision making.
Fourth, create a digital twin for the whole coal flow, from coal production, transportation, and sales to storage and usage, and finally enable the integration of all factors, processes, and value chains for shared value.
Intelligent coal mining has been promoted rapidly in China. Digital technology is key to helping coal mines achieve this goal, but still has a long way to go. To make this happen, we need to provide stronger guidance for businesses, introduce more favorable policies, drive a broader consensus, and bring together all stakeholders in an open manner to rapidly integrate digital technology into the coal industry.
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