One of the first things often associated with Motorola is mobile phones, especially looking back not quite so long ago, when flip phones like the Motorola Razr dominated the market.
With an 85-year history, the company has always focused on communication – particularly radio communication – and has serviced a whole range of sectors from emergency departments, retail, hospitality and mining.
“One of the beauties of our business is not a lot of people actually see us day to day,” Martin Chappell, general manager Australia and New Zealand commercial channels, minerals and energy at Motorola Solutions, told Australian Mining.
“You don’t see our products and services out there but it’s probably touched your life today already and you’re not even aware of it.”
The company employs around 20,000 people, with its head office in Chicago and regional head offices in Melbourne and Singapore. It has been operating in Australia for more than 40 years.
While Motorola specialises in radio communications, Chappell said it aimed to extend into applications on various devices; expanding from pure hand-held or mobile radio devices and digitising its products to run on different platforms that are both consumer and industrial grade.
Communications challenges on site
Chappell said the biggest communications challenge for mine sites was continuity of service; getting enough coverage so management can talk to or locate their employees.
“In the last several years, applications through digitisation of radio products has allowed us to be able to locate people,” he said.
“I can use a specific example of a mine just out of Emerald in Queensland where they do blasting nearly every day. Obviously they need to know where their staff are before they go and blast.
“In the old days it was via voice, now it’s via voice as well as GPS tracking.”
As miners constantly look for ways to reduce downtime on site, being able to easily locate workers and equipment falls within that category. Proper communications services are also a key part of improving worker safety, which remains a top priority as companies continue to ensure every worker goes home safely after every shift.
The remoteness of mines presents another challenge for communications technology, particularly as miners continue to go further and further in search of mineral resources.
Chappell spoke about the company’s radio network – which he referred to as a ‘campus device’ – that could be placed on a required mine site, providing extended coverage.
“What it’s doing now is it’s also linking back to head offices,” Chappell said.
“So if we look at the IROC (Integrated Remote Operations Centre) system in WA, which is through BHP (Billiton), what that does is have a multitude of mines which all talk back to a central command system based in Perth. So they might be talking from the Pilbara or wherever back to Perth.”
The IROC system controls all BHP’s Pilbara operations, including its rail, stockyards and port facilities. The system also facilitates the growing shift toward automation in the mining industry.
“From that centralised position in Perth, they’ve got autonomous trucks going now, so there’s a lot of automation that’s coming from these centralised command centres,” Chappell said.
To further overcome the communications difficulties at remote sites, Chappell added that the company had devices that could switch to public networks to provide better coverage.
“Now you can have devices that can roam off of those campus sites or your mine sites right and onto public networks where you haven’t got coverage from your dedicated network,” he said.
“When you leave or go into town and you’re a manager, you still need to be in touch with the mine, which could be 200km away. You can roam onto the public network and use it as a radio [and] log back securely into your private system.”
Although Apple and Samsung currently rule the commercial consumer market, Chappell reinforced the inability of their phones to handle conditions on site. He mentioned the Motorola Lex L10, a hybrid mobile phone radio device that is more suitable, as it is rugged and longer-lasting.
“That’s a device you pick up and think it’s a smartphone,” he said. “Sure it’s a little bit thicker and a little bit more rugged but to the untrained eye, that’s not a big big difference. What that is, is essentially a product that has two-way radio on site and when you get to town, it’s your smart phone.”
Chappell added that the device is LTE (4G) capable and can use two sim cards.
“When you’re on your mine site you can use it to be on your lock down radio network or LTE network. When you’re in town you roam on to Vodaphone, Optus, Telstra, whatever it is and use the application to get back into your dedicated system on site.”
“It works in water and is dust proof,” he said, “you can drop it from three levels and it won’t break.
“Those are the sort of devices that we’re pushing down into the market in terms of mining.”
Communications across Australia
Chappell believes Australia is at the forefront globally when it comes to implementing wireless communications on site.
“This goes back 30-40 years for analog radio systems that were rolled out through lots of mines across Australia,” he said.
“Most of them now have been upgraded to digital for various reasons, mainly to get greater coverage, better voice quality and to bring on a suite of applications, and those applications deliver a multitude of benefits to the mining companies.
“So I think Australia has been early adopters in terms of heading down that digital road on two-way radio and enjoying the benefits that you get from that.”
In terms of the future of mining communications, Chappell considered more progress would happen through applications.
“I think it’s probably more around the application side, so the benefits that they’re getting out of apps in terms of worker safety, in terms of journey management – being able to track the workers from point A to point B – doing that autonomously so it’s automatic,” he said.
He also spoke of blast tones on site to aid workers.
“They can send out blast tones over the network [so] that people are warned that there’s actually blasting that’s taking place in certain areas,” he added.
“That’s where it’s all heading, and I think it’s heading towards workers being focused on their particular job at that point in time as opposed to having to muck around with technology to make sure it’s working. So there’s a lot of applications around that, in terms of keeping the safety of workers at the forefront.”
Motorola’s communications platforms
Chappell explained that Motorola has three different communications platforms; the P25, which is predominantly in the public safety arena; the Tetra, which is a European standard; and digital mobile radio (DMR).
While Motorola has a mining focus, it also has offerings for the oil and gas industry, such as the Tetra ATEX MTP8000EX portable radio, which has a higher standard to stop any chance of it sparking or igniting a fire.
Although it invests in all three of its communications platforms, one of its main focuses is its DMRs.
“There’s a big emphasis on digital mobile radios, and then from an LTE perspective, Motorola’s doing a lot of work around LTE in terms of infrastructure, to deliver that higher bandwidth data across mine sites or indeed across public safety.”
In terms of delivering the right communications on site, Chappell emphasised selecting platforms that are standards based and companies that have been in the business for a long time.
“Another way that they can ensure it is by working with the vendor and the vendors’ partner community who have been in the business for a long long time,” he added.
“You would also be looking towards a company and a partner who can not only deliver the products and the system from the outset, but support it through its lifespan, whether that be 10, 15 or 20 years.”
A glimpse ahead
While the company looks ahead at further developing its DMR range, it also has big plans for its software capabilities, especially in analytics and predicting events to increase worker safety.
“Motorola talks a lot about that in terms of its public safety business and how we are now analysing and predicting for crimes going to take place in a particular area. That is also starting to play into the mining space where we can predict a potential accident happening or collisions of vehicles,” Chappell said.
“So lots and lots of emphasis over the next year to 24 months around what those pretty significant software suites can do in predicting as well as getting a return on investment, journey management, route management, all those type of stuff that mining businesses are acutely aware of these days as they continue to further drive costs down and improve their ROI.”
The company has already seen a lot of success in its public safety business over the past year in the mining sector, securing contracts with BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance (BHP BMA) in Queensland’s Bowen Basin, BHP’s rail business in WA’s Pilbara, Wesfarmers and a yet to be identified major international oil and gas producer.
With technology constantly evolving and upgrading, who knows what will be next for radio communications.