Keeping communication mobile

While mobile phones are ubiq­uitous in nearly all walks of Australian industry, there is still one sector were the technology has been unsurprisingly absent.

Aside from the obvious opera­tional hazards that a mobile phone would encounter when being used underground, such as harsh working conditions, dust and heavy knocks, the technology required to actually use a mobile at depths has been in the early stages for some time.

However an Australian company, Mine Site Technologies, has taken a leap into this space by designing the world’s first mobile phone for under­ground mining.

Mine Site Technologies business development manager Denis Kent told Australian Mining that the company has created a Voice over Internet Proto­col (VoIP) phone designed specifically for underground mining.

While this technology has existed for some time outside of the mining industry, the sector “has been waiting for the technology to mature and become well trusted before imple­menting it,” Kent explained.

However, it is not only a mobile phone, but also a radio frequency ID (RFID) tracking system.

Already seeing some service in hard rock mines, the VoIP Mine Phone is predominately a two way commu­nication hand set that utilises the ImPact Wi-Fi system to makes calls as well as send texts along the primary and secondary escape ways in under­ground tunnels.

“We have recently implemented digital infrastructure in an Australian underground coal mine, and put in
wireless network switches (WNS) that create a number of overlapping Wi-Fi hotspots to make a digital signal,” Kent said.

The phones allow for private dialling between other phones on the underground network as well as outside
by using the mine’s existing telephone system.

“This phone allows people to communicate in private conversations underground, but it can also link into
a fixed phone system and speak to people above ground clearly.

“So if you have a problem with machinery, you can now have a long wall miner in Australia talk to the
vehicle specialist in the US,” he told Australian Mining.

Additionally, the handset also comes with a number of mine specific features, such as 24 push to talk chan­nels, a man down emergency over ride and an asset locator which is part of the tracking system. 

“With these tracking systems and additional data loggers on mobile equip­ment, you can monitor a range of infor­mation in real time,” Kent said.

Weighing in at less than 300 grams, the phone has a battery life of three hours of talk time as well as 72 hours of standby time and is designed to last an entire shift; the phones come with an LCD menu screen for ease of use.

It can store up to 100 text messages and hold approximately 200 numbers in the phone book.

The Mine Phone Handset also comes with an external headset.

Mine Site had previously looked at developing the technology using a leaky feeder system; however
it found that it was too complex to effectively provide adequate cover­age on parallel road­ways as opposed to a Wi-Fi network.

“There is also the issue that in using a leaky feeder system, you do not have the avail­able bandwidth to send pictures, video or data, only voice information.

“Using a VoIP infra­structure allowed for a greater number of things such as computer data to be sent and received as well as monitored in real time,” Kent told Australin Mining.

Importantly, this phone has also been designed for use in underground coal mines.

“This mobile handset has been developed for coal miners, as hard rock mining has always had fairly good two way communications systems but coal mining has never had a mobile device with good quality voice communica­tion,” he said.

“The Mine Phone is a breakthrough in voice and messaging communica­tions, offering functionality never before available in coal mines” Mine Site chief executive Lloyd Zenari added.

The equipment is currently under­going an approvals process from the Mine Safety and Health Sdministration in the US for use in underground coal mines, and Mine­site expects to receive authorisation in September 2010.

Kent explained that the mobile phone technology and more effective communi­cations equipment is
one of the critical steps in moving a mine towards greater automation.

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