Digital Radio to Improve Mine Safety

Digital Radio to Improve Mine Safety

10 Sep

When man and machine work close together in confined spaces, it takes high levels of consistent vigilance to ensure safe and profitable mining operations.

To implement a credible safety methodology balanced with an efficient and profitable production plan, a mission-critical radio communications network is a prerequisite. Without radio communications, everything stops. Just recently South Africans endured a 5.5 magnitude earth tremor that 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.
Whilst tremors such as these are not frequent occurrences in South Africa, seismologists have warned of more frequent seismological events as a result of underground mining. A deep-mine cocktail of explosives, man and machinery working in confined tunnels with limited air, reduced visibility, amidst often-unstable rock faces becomes particularly dangerous should an unscheduled seismic event occur.
Recent labour protest action and confrontations with illegal miners underground have further added instability to an already volatile mining environment. While most mines take extreme caution during operations, crisis situations do occur, and in these instances good, quick and efficient communication is imperative. “In a crisis situation, every second is crucial,” said Tony Sipho Sibanda, Business Development Executive for Emcom Wireless, who has been assisting several Southern African mines in upgrading their radio communication systems.
“Disastrous incidents like the collapse of an underground tunnel is almost always associated with panic, shock and confusion that often leads to impulsive actions. This is where injury and loss of life can occur.”
According to Sibanda, clear, efficient, managed and controlled radio communication mitigates the risks associated with mining activities as it facilitates a seamless flow of information and data, thus enabling decision-makers to continuously monitor, take immediate action and allocate appropriate resources for the situation at hand.
“In a crisis, you want to know where every personnel member is at that exact moment, their status, whether they are secure, trapped or injured and what resources are available to be deployed to attend to them,” he said.
In the tremor that originated in Orkney in the North West recently, AngloGold Ashanti managed to evacuate 3300 workers from their two mines safely, and while there were 28 miners with minor injuries, radio communication aided in prioritising resources and getting everyone to safety on time.
“Safely hoisting all 3,300 people to surface after an earthquake of this size is an achievement of which we’re immensely proud,” said Mike O’Hare, AngloGold Ashanti’s Chief Operating Officer: South Africa, in a statement.
“Our infrastructure responded as it was designed to, and our safety protocols worked as they should.”
Sibanda says, however, that while all mines in the country are mandated by legislation to be equipped with necessary radio communications systems, some are still relying on old outdated analogue radio communications technology, which could compromise workers safety in the event of a crisis specifically when stretched beyond their normal operating limits.
Like most evolving communications technologies, radio communications is undergoing its own digital revolution. Much like cellular phone technology, DMR (Digital Mobile Radio) has seen the introduction of applications and devices that go beyond pure ‘walkie-talkie’ voice communication. Modern digital radio communications solutions now integrate data and other applications into one device. “Digital Mobile Radio (DMR), an international non-proprietary standard for digital radio communications, facilitates access to applications developers so that bespoke cost-effective solutions and services can be provided,” said Sibanda.
Some of the new features of DMR include the recording of resource tracking, which allows a replay of incidents to recreate scenarios and better prepare for future events. “With real-time tracking and biometric sensors connected to digital handheld radios, you can even define whether a person is standing, lying down or sitting in an upright position,” said Sibanda. “You can further integrate technologies like Bluetooth into radio to interface with devices like heart rate monitors to monitor in real-time the breathing and heart rates of users.” Mine operators have always needed to be highly creative in finding ways to communicate essential information to workers down in the pit or tunnels.
In the late 1800s in Kimberley, hundreds of communication lines crisscrossed the big hole, and a morse-code-like bell or knock system was deployed to relay messages. Radio has today evolved to such an extent where the technology makes it possible to integrate radio with other wireless and wired communications mediums such as cellular telephony, PABX and landline. A radio operating off a suitably designed network is able to call a GSM phone or PABX extension, and visa versa.
In a disaster, a miner underground can be linked to a medical emergency centre hundreds of kilometres away for instant assistance through the radio network.
“We need to ensure our communications backbone and infrastructure is ready for events such as the recent quake and associated aftershocks and not be caught on the back foot should a big one come along. It should not have to be a quake or loss of further lives that shakes us to action,” said Sibanda.
Sibanda said he has often come across situations where the management of a mine forgot to upgrade and consider the evolvement of their radio communications, only to notice the critical importance of radio communications when the system goes ‘off air’. “And then they expect miracles!” he said.
Mine radio communications networks are critical infrastructure and should be subject to the same attention as other key tools, plants, technologies and equipment. “It a well known fact that mine operators will allocate more budget to one large hauler truck than to a radio network,” said Sibanda.
DMR technology facilitates an always-on, always available, bespoke, integrated solution, better audio quality, better walkie-talkie battery life and lower infrastructure costs over wide operational areas.
In addition, legacy analogue two-way radio systems can be migrated to DMR on the same licensed frequencies, without significant disruption of critical operations.

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