Fail-Safe solutions for Autonomous Vehicles: Protecting lives and operations

Rely on a dedicated private LTE for mobile broadband and supplement it with Wi-Fi.

Fortescue articl

Autonomous Vehicles & Private LTE go hand-in-hand, so as Private LTE & Wi-Fi.

In a recent article on, Cecilia Jamasmie reports on the autonomous vehicle incident that recently occurred at the Christmas Creek iron ore mine in the Pilbara region in Australia. The mine is part of Fortescue Metals Group (ASX:FMG).In a statement from the chief executive, Elizabeth Gaines, the company has been operating autonomous vehicles since 2012 and believes the incident was due to a Wi-Fi coverage failure and not Fortescue’s Autonomous Haulage System (AHS), which Ms. Gaines states has safely managed over 24.7 million kilometers of autonomous travel since 2012.

The push for the digital transformation is occurring across all verticals, and most definitely in mining, oil & gas and electric utilities.  In all industries, the digital transformation is being driven by the need to improve safety for workers and the environment, while also increasing operational efficiencies.  As industry implements this transformation, it also introduces a plethora of new applications, devices, sensors, and processes.  All of these new devices and solutions are connected to form a real-time smart, mobile framework that delivers digital transformation.  At the core of this transformation is the need for a reliable, fail-safe and fit-for-purpose connectivity foundation, which must be able to safely handle the constant growth, migration, and multitude of applications, devices, and services delivering the improved safety and operations of the digital industry.

The new smart mine leverages many new technologies, and applications, including autonomous vehicles and drones. The mine workers, vehicles and drones are always on the move and must always remain connected.  Systems, such as drones and haulers, are designed to temporarily operate in an autonomous mode, to safely allow immobilization to avoid incidents.  Smaller drones can be set to be fully autonomous underground, but for safety reasons, people are usually not allowed in those areas when devices are in fully autonomous mode.

In the case of the Fortescue incident, although it might have been due to Wi-Fi coverage, the autonomous applications should have had a fail-safe to immobilize the vehicle in the event the communications to the mine systems system was interrupted.  Perhaps the Fortescue application already has a fail-safe, however, if it does, the vehicle did not immobilize fast enough.  As for communications failures, we have all experienced, in our daily lives as consumers on a public network, a break in wireless connectivity. We accept this because we are using consumer-grade service designed to deliver low-cost, best effort connectivity.  In our daily life, we are not relying on an industrial or mission-critical grade wireless infrastructure, as required in mines. So it’s important to make a differentiation between consumer-grade and industrial-grade solutions, products, and network design.

For the last decade, mining companies have been deploying broadband wireless technologies at their sites.  Wi-Fi has been one of the technologies deployed when the need for broadband arose.  Wi-Fi was, and is, still affordable, readily available, provides capacity, is well known, does not need any spectrum licenses (in most countries around the world), and overall is a simple solution.  After over a decade of experience in industrial networks, I do not believe driverless and autonomous vehicles can reliably and safely operate only on Wi-Fi.  Although we all use Wi-Fi daily and over 25 billion devices can connect to it, the technology itself, like any other technology, has some strong attributes and some limitations.

During the last decade, LTE has been deployed by carriers globally, and we have now all come to use LTE as consumers on consumer grade networks.  The main reason why mining companies have not deployed industrial-grade secure private LTE networks until very recently is that the traditional LTE manufacturers have all, and continue to, follow big money and have not been interested in anything other than large-scale consumer-grade carrier deployments.  No one can fault the traditional LTE manufacturer for going after their prime markets versus looking at the much smaller industrial markets.

The tier one mobile operators are using LTE for coverage, distance, user density and of course mobility.  In dense areas, when users are mostly fixed or nomadic in stadiums, malls, airports, etc., carriers have been augmenting their wireless capacity with free Wi-Fi to provide more capacity when the users are “fixed” within Wi-Fi coverage.  Every one of our phones and most mobile routers come equipped with LTE and Wi-Fi, so users can connect to any of the available networks and have been doing so for a decade.

Today some vendors deliver dedicated, secure and private LTE solutions for industrial, government, military, and specialty service provider.  Mining companies can have all the advantages of a decade of proven LTE mobility with sophisticated Quality of Service (QoS) security, authentication while maintaining Wi-Fi co-existence.  Some vendors deliver affordable and industrial-grade private LTE, for surface and underground mining operations.   A truly private LTE delivers dedicated, secure communication infrastructure far better for the industrial space versus the consumer-grade, hared public LTE.  Some vendors private LTE products and solutions are specifically designed and deployed for private networks.

Fail-Safe solutions for Autonomous Vehicles

None of us in our daily lives would rely only on Wi-Fi, so it’s no surprise that driverless and autonomous mines cannot rely only on Wi-Fi alone.  As LTE consumer users, we all rely on LTE for constant mobile communications and augmenting our capacity with Wi-Fi once at a gathering area such our home, office, airport, coffee shop, or mall or other gathering places.  We also accept best effort services form the mobile operators or free Wi-Fi in public places, even paid Wi-Fi is on best efforts.   The industrial customers and users cannot afford to purr people and operations at risk with public LTE.

Fail-safe solutions for autonomous vehicles need two elements:

  • A robust, always-on LTE mobile communication system that is capable and engineered to deliver dedicated, secure, reliable, high-quality mobile communications with traffic priority for the mission-critical applications. A private LTE infrastructure is far more reliable than a public, consumer-grade LTE, as it is designed to leverage the LTE capabilities that are unfortunately not put in use in consumer-grade deployments. In addition to the Private LTE infrastructure, an overlay of Wi-Fi bubble for gathering places is an efficient way to add network capacity headroom, for the applications that are not mission critical and can deal with best effort capacity.
  • A fail-proof autonomous software application that immobilizes the vehicle, in the event the communications communication with the Mine digital nervous system is interrupted.
  • The combination of a fail-safe communication network and fail-safe applications are critical when over 300 tons of cargo is traveling in a trackless autonomous 500 tons vehicles.

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