The recent release of the Presidential Safety Audit Report, which has been welcomed by the Chamber of Mines, prompted leading telecommunications company, Multisource, to draw attention to the efficacy of contemporary communication in relation to safety in the mining industry. It is indisputable that within the mining sector, an effective and secure method and range of communication is an absolute priority – from corporate head offices in urban centres, to large installations in outlying areas, to a vast complement of personnel, and to vehicles transporting valuable and highly classified stock.
With the developments in mining technology itself, there is a parallel – and rapid – advance in sophisticated telecommunication, in the form of a wide range of wireless technologies ideally suited to linking, regulating and monitoring all mining assets, locations and responsibilities – including the critical element of safety. Over a long history, Multisource has consistently confirmed their expertise and experience in providing specialised wireless solutions, with an acute ability for understanding and meeting their clients' needs. This approach has earned the company an enviable reputation for excellence, forming long-term supplier and customer partnerships, based on the principles of reliability and integrity, employing state-of-the-art products and customised systems.
Richard Smuts-Steyn, CEO of Multisource, has identified the move from analogue to digital as a key area in technological advancement within the telecommunications industry. “Traditionally, networks have always been fragmented,” he says. “Nowadays, with digital, you can have a single two-way radio platform that sits on a single and national IP network – but still have communication cells that split different working units.”
Digital enables improved safety
With a vision of zero injury hours, the mining industry views safety as a priority and has demonstrated its commitment with several important initiatives over the past decade.
Smuts-Steyn categorised a number of broadband applications that can provide a tangible contribution to mining safety in flexible, innovative features, global access, mobility, audibility, and proximity. “With IP networks, direct communications, in both voice and video, from Head Office right down to Coal-Face is feasible”. He points out that an IP communication allows radio transmission signals to be carried away from the coal face via IP which negates the requirement for high power transmission devices to be used in potentially hazardous environments. In addition, the digital radios are available in intrinsically safe versions. In open cast mining environments, this can also incorporate GPS tracking as part of the radio function.
Digital devices also provide significant improvements in audio clarity: oral communication is considerably clearer with the absence of signal-to-noise degradation, providing crisper and cleaner communication, and diminishing the impact of inaudible or garbled messages. Smuts-Steyn points out that in an analogue environment, voices are not always clear and analogue radios have no caller ID – which means the individual is not easily identifiable. With digital, caller ID is visible and programmable, so the communication centres always know who is talking. In addition, status messages (such as on-duty/off-duty/lunch/ etc.) can be customised according to any language preference within the application.
Digital devices facilitate safety
Multisource's CEO lists numerous advantageous features available with digital devices, noting such utilities as the 'lone-worker function': digital devices can be programmed so that if a miner does not use his radio over a specific period of time, a manager can check and remotely activate the worker's microphone to hear what is being said and establish what is happening in an area.
Another option is the 'man-down board' – this is fitted to the radio and programmed in increments of one degree so that if the radio tilts, it will signify the man is down and requires help. Predefined timing ensures that if the individual simply bends down, it will not alert the system. This sort of rich functionality has long been sought after by mine operators, and is only achievable with digital technology.
With regard to Call Alert functions and Standard Emergency Buttons, Smuts-Steyn points out that, with the former, because the mining environment is often extremely noisy, digital devices provide visual ID options that enable the user of the device to see when they are being called: as for the latter, the alarm will not go off until someone at base station has acknowledged the alarm and responded to it. “Another advantage of IP backhauled communications platforms,” Smuts-Steyn says, “is the opportunity to overlay other communication media such as data and even video providing a more holistic and accurate view of the situation at hand.”
There is no doubt that IP convergence is rapidly gaining dominance in the telecommunication industry. The ability to collectively transfer voice and data has been a long sought-after objective, and rapid information in multiple forms is today a key asset. “In an industry such as mining, IP telecommunication technology can contribute significantly to the ongoing operational safety as well as commercial benefits,” Smuts-Steyn concludes.