With mine workers and heavy machinery operating in confined spaces, it takes constant vigilance and communication to ensure safe and profitable mining operations. Most mines can do without one of their production information systems for short periods, but when a site’s radio communications go down, everything must stop.
In South Africa recently, a 5.5 magnitude earthquake shook large parts of the country, causing one death and the evacuation of thousands of miners from the Great Noligwa and Moab Khotsong mines in the North-West province.
Such tremors are not frequent occurrences in South Africa, but seismologists have warned of more frequent events as a result of underground mining. Deep mining’s cocktail of explosives, mechanization, confined work areas, ventilation, poor visibility; the risk of rock fall becomes even more hazardous when earthquakes happen.
When emergency action is needed, resilient and efficient communication is imperative.
“Every second is crucial,” says Trevor Roslee, System Sales Specialist for Emcom Wireless, who is assisting several Southern African mines to upgrade their radio communication systems. “Disastrous incidents like the collapse of an underground tunnel are almost always associated with panic, shock and confusion that often lead to impulsive actions. This is where injury and loss of life can occur.”
Clear, efficiently managed and controlled radio communication mitigates the risks associated with mining activities. By facilitating a seamless flow of voice and data, modern mobile radio enables decision-makers to continuously monitor conditions and to take immediate action and allocate appropriate resource where they are needed.
“In a crisis, you want to know where everyone is at that exact moment, their status, whether they’re secure, trapped or injured and what resources are available to be deployed to attend to them,” Roslee says.
Some mines continue to rely on older analog mobile radio equipment, many of which are stretched to their operating limits. Modern digital mobile radio (DMR) improves safety performance by enabling transmission of supporting data and applications alongside clear voice communication.
Voice recording is a common feature customers use on their DMR systems. Being able to review what was said, when, allows operators to learn from incidents and better prepare for future events.
“DMR allows you to integrate technologies like Bluetooth to interface with devices like heart-rate and other biometric monitors. Real-time tracking of such sensors reporting through mine workers’ digital handheld radios means you could even define whether a person’s fallen,” he says.
In the early days of deep underground mining, hundreds of communication lines criss-crossed each operation, and a morse-code-like bell or knock system was deployed to relay messages. Today, mobile radio has evolved to such an extent the technology makes it possible to integrate with other communications systems, such as cellular telephony, PABX and landline. A mobile radio operating on a suitably designed network can call a GSM phone or PABX extension, and vice versa.
In a disaster, a miner underground can be linked through their mobile radio network to a medical emergency center hundreds of kilometers away for instant assistance.
“We need to ensure our communications backbone and infrastructure is ready for events such as the recent quake,” said Roslee. He often sees sites where the mine operator has neglected to appropriately upgrade radio communication, only to notice its critical importance when the radio system goes down.
Mine radio communications networks are critical infrastructure, and should be subject to the same attention as other key tools, plant, technologies and equipment, he advises.
DMR technology facilitates an always-on, always-available, bespoke, integrated solution. It enables better audio quality, better battery life and lower infrastructure costs over wide operational areas. Sites’ legacy analog radio systems can be migrated to DMR on the same licensed frequencies, without significant disruption of critical operations.