As the world's biggest coal-producing country with 4,000 mines, China aims to make its large-scale and most hazardous mines "smart" by 2025, and eventually roll out this modernisation to all coal mines by 2035, according to a guideline on the digital upgrade of the mining industry issued by eight state agencies in 2020.
With the national-level guidelines, China is banking on technology to improve safety and ensure stable supplies.
In February, an open-pit coal mine collapsed in Inner Mongolia, leaving at least 53 people dead or missing. Of the 367 mine accidents and 518 mine deaths reported in China last year, 168 accidents and 245 of the fatalities were specifically related to coal mines, according to official data.
Digging machines can now be operated from an above-ground control room, where live-feed videos and real-time data of the working face are displayed on multiple screens, including temperature and gas levels. This technology revolution is powered by Huawei Technologies' 5G network infrastructure.
With the help of four blast-proof 5G base stations installed between underground hydraulic props, Fu and another six miners can simply make video calls to communicate with colleagues in the control room above as they supervise production and carry out periodic maintenance.
This marks a big difference from having to operate the machines manually for hours on end. They can also hold occasional video chats with friends and family during any downtime.
The cooperation between Shenzhen-based Huawei and Shaanxi Coal Industry, the state-owned company that operates the mine, is just one example of the digital upgrading of China's economy, including the deployment of 5G networks. For President Xi Jinping, the transformation of traditional industries is just as important as developing new emerging industries.
Huawei has set up several business groups, known as legions or "juntuan" in Chinese, to serve a variety of industries such as ports and hospitals. Mining was the first industry Huawei targeted, forging a high profile partnership with coal mines that was endorsed by founder Ren Zhengfei himself in 2021.
The coal mining industry, starved of tech industry interest for years, is just the "low-hanging fruit" for Huawei, said Xu Jun, chief technology officer of Huawei's Mine business unit.
Yet the move towards industrial solutions has not been an immediate revenue and profit booster. Huawei reported first-quarter revenue of 132.1 billion yuan (US$20 billion), a marginal rise of 0.8 per cent from the 131 billion yuan in the same period last year.
The intelligent upgrade has helped cut the number of workers needed underground at the coalface by half and drastically reduced their workload, as the miners only need to intervene when a problem arises, according to Shi Chao, head of intelligent mining at Hongliulin Coal Mine.
This video from South China Morning Post (SCMP) shows how 5G and AI is transforming China’s coal mining industry:
Huawei has a whitepaper on this topic titled, "China Unicom's 5G Private Network PLUS One Telco Cloud for 5G PNI-NPN Use Cases", available here. GSMA has a case study on this topic, again with Huawei and China Unicom, titled "Ultra-reliable 5G ushers in a new era for mining" available here.
- The 3G4G Blog: 5G Private and Non-Public Network (NPN)
- Private Networks Technology Blog: Private Networks are Popular in Manufacturing, Education and Mining
- Private Networks Technology Blog: Ericsson Video on 5G for the Mining Industry