With routes dating back to the Space Race between the former Soviet Union and the US, the Apollo era and moon landings of the 1960s, the Global Positioning System, or GPS, has come an incredibly long way. A system reserved for uses that were quite literally out of this world at the time, today there are very few industries and organisations that don’t benefit from it in their everyday work. Developed by the US, the system has applications across industries, reaching into our personal lives in ways few can truly understand or even realise.

For its time, GPS was a trailblazer, although not alone in its endeavours to orbit Earth and monitor movements upon it. Since its commercial launch in 1983, the system has been joined by a multitude of others; some complement it, while others operate wholly independently. Galileo, for instance, is the EU’s own global navigation satellite system (GNSS), and has been in operation since 2016. Both it and GPS’s capabilities are openly available to ensure the greatest application and hence safety across the sectors in which they are used.

Although, it is important to note they too have secured systems exclusively used for the likes of defence; in GPS’s case, NASA explains it currently provides two levels of service: “Standard Positioning Service, which uses the coarse acquisition code on the L1 frequency, and Precise Positioning Service (PPS) which uses the P(Y) code on both the L1 and L2 frequencies.” It adds that access to the PPS is restricted to US Armed Forces, US Federal agencies and selected allied armed forces and governments, much like other GNSS operated by other countries and jurisdictions, and this increased precision demonstrates the range of positioning services available for customers and companies in a range of industries.

Said to be “a game-changer for the economies of both nations”, Australia and New Zealand have launched the Southern Positioning Augmentation Network (SouthPAN), which brings together both Galileo and GPS for the first known time in the Southern Hemisphere. The technology could bring a new level of operational precision to the Australian mining sector, and encourage companies across industries to work with miners in the Southern Hemisphere.

What is SouthPAN?

The headline benefit of the SouthPAN system, explains Geoscience Australia’s branch head of national positioning Dr Martine Woolf, is that users will be able to position to accuracies as little as ten centimetres, 50 times more accurate than the five to ten metre accuracy currently available.

“The key thing from our perspective,” Woolf explains, “is it provides accurate, reliable and high integrity positioning services all across Australia, New Zealand – including offshore – without a need for mobile phone and internet coverage.”

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By GlobalData
A digital rendering of the Inmarsat satellite. (Photo by Inmarsat)

Geoscience Australia, as the Australian government lead agency, has partnered with Toitū Te Whenua Land Information New Zealand on the development, deployment and operation of the project, a Satellite-Based Augmentation System (SBAS) that uses reference stations, telecommunications infrastructure, computing centres, signal generators and satellites to provide improved positioning and navigation services.

Using both satellite positioning systems, SouthPAN can provide unparalleled accuracies via ground-based reference stations which correct through the known differential; this is where the real benefit is as it then provides that position to users back through the satellites, without the need for internet or mobile connections, which means they can be received anywhere within the system’s footprint.

Adding that this could be seen as the next generation of satellite positioning, Woolf believes it offers huge potential to innumerable sectors, including mining. Before going live in the second half of 2022, the system underwent a period of substantial testing across both countries as part of a science research and innovation cooperation agreement between the two countries. The SouthPAN SBAS testbed project was operational between 2017 and 2019, working with numerous industries to ascertain its usefulness and viability of the service.

“An independent report on the test-bed project found that SouthPAN is estimated to generate over $4.1bn (A$6bn) in economic benefits in the next 30 years in Australia alone, and $5.1bn (A$7.6bn) in New Zealand and Australia combined,” Woolf continues. The report indicated that these benefits are likely to come from significant increases to productivity, but also through new technologies adapted to, or built on, the foundations laid by this global positioning capability.

Bringing it into the mine

For Australia’s mining sector, the benefits will likely be clear very early on. “There’s lots of productivity gains, for many sectors such as agriculture and mining, where intelligent vehicles operate around sites,” Woolf suggests. As well as saving on fuel for both crewed and autonomous vehicles, safety measures such as collision avoidance will benefit from greater levels of accuracy, meaning they can operate more efficiently and safely, reducing the need for interruptions.

Woolf adds: “There’s many applications where we know this system can really improve the way mining operates. We also know that geofencing applications that rely on positioning – which allow exclusion zones for people, but equally around areas for environmental or cultural heritage reasons – can be geofenced far easier, requiring much less infrastructure and equipment to do so.”

According to Woolf, other benefits might include the ability to track equipment both at site and when being transported between them, as well as reducing the need for on-site physical pegging. “It will allow for a much more efficient operation; not just when you start the operation, but also the execution,” says Woolf.

“It will offer less uncertainty in terms of where particular operations are done; better design and modelling of where the particular resources are; then better control over the operation; and the best optimised use of the equipment for the conditions you’re going to find when you go in and do that operation.”

As with tracking the movement of equipment off site, the benefits for Australia’s miners stretch beyond a mine’s perimeter. Once extracted and processed materials are ready for transportation, the system can again be utilised for logistics purposes, quite literally from site to the customer. It also has the potential to be used to support the efficient and effective management of human assets too, such as fly in fly out crews.

Plotting a future

In September 2022, just days before the SouthPAN early open services went live, Lockheed Martin Australia secured an $800m (A$1.18bn) 19-year contract – which includes an extension provision – to establish a network of GNSS reference stations and satellite uplink facilities that will enable communications and transmissions with SouthPAN’s space infrastructure. Perhaps an unexpected partner for Geoscience Australia, but this agreement demonstrates the broad range of parties and companies interested in the technology.

The company said of the deal: “The SouthPAN contract will expand Lockheed Martin’s investments toward sustainable business growth in Australia. Currently, Lockheed Martin programmes support around 4,000 Australian jobs in advanced manufacturing and technology industries. This contract will grow that footprint with additional jobs in at least four states.”

End-users looking to take advantage of access to early open services can use the SouthPAN Service Definition Document and Disclaimer. Access does not depend on making significant infrastructure capital investments as many devices and positioning-enabled equipment will already be compatible.

“The ability to have precise positioning is not new and is actually already used at mine sites,” says Woolf. “But what SouthPAN offers is the ability to lower the access bar to those technologies. It will work in many cases, lowering the need to install expensive infrastructure which can be a real barrier; especially in very remote and rural areas where there’s not good mobile phone and internet.”

With more than a hint of caution, Woolf is optimistic for the future and what the network has to offer. “I think in five or ten years’ time, many of us won’t know we’re using SouthPAN,” she predicts. “I think it will be so integrated into what we do and how our society works, we’ll just assume it’s there.” We will, though, see its benefit in terms of safety, efficiency and the potential for newer technologies to be spun off.

“Hopefully there will be many examples in the mining sector,” Woolf concludes. “We [could] develop new ideas, maybe coming from other sectors, apply positioning and make something that is particularly useful in mining; then we might be able to use these domestically and perhaps even export them to the rest of the world.”

This, Woolf adds, is where mining companies can play a huge part. She calls on Australia’s mining community to engage even further than it has already, saying “we’re very interested to hear and work with industry to make sure this technology is adopted, that we understand the opportunities people see, and potential barriers, to make sure the system is adopted to deliver those benefits and justify the government’s investment in it.”

Quite literally with space age technology at their fingertips, Australia’s miners could soon be leading the way in how best to bring out-of-this world solution right down to earth, and even deep into it.