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Digging Into Converged Wireless Networks

Published by , Editorial Assistant
Global Mining Review,

Mining, tunnelling, and subterranean industrial operations are now realising the benefits of a technology convergence that unites underground voice, location services, and data communications into holistic wireless networks.

Digging Into Converged Wireless Networks

Previously, single-purpose underground wireless networks had coverage and capacity issues, which limited communications for periodic production updates or sufficient communications capability for emergency responses. The typical deployment of analogue FM radios over a leaky feeder-based infrastructure supported voice PTT communications, but coverage changes in working sections, along with interference from equipment movement, frequently resulted in spotty service. However, over the past decade, there has been an increasing adoption of more resilient digital communication networks that support a wide variety of real-time updates for production status, location and asset tracking, environmental conditions, equipment operational performance, and workforce safety initiatives. The transmission of this voice, location, and broadband data is increasingly unified over a single, converged wireless network that supports mobility underground and ensures adequate bandwidth for managerial control above ground.

Converged networks

Converged networks are not new, and for most industrial applications they are the fundamental component for an Internet of Things (IOT)-based digital transformation. However, the architecture of converged wireless networks varies widely based on environmental conditions and anticipated number of users, and above-ground technologies optimised for wide-area coverage and high user density have not transferred well for subterranean applications. When deploying wireless networks underground, the key performance indicator for success is radio frequency (RF) propagation. Technologies that work well above ground, delivering terrestrial coverage for large numbers of users, are not scalable downward to be cost-effective for the smaller workforces located in a tight subterranean environment. One wireless technology – mesh radio systems – hits the sweet spot for both underground coverage and cost-effective scalability for tens of users to thousands of users. For this reason, mining and tunnelling companies have adopted wireless mesh networks providing digital voice, data, and location services for mobile users.

Wireless mesh technology

Using wireless mesh technology combined with wireless and fibre backhaul, these converged systems are rapidly replacing the previous generation of stovepipe radio systems and legacy data networks that provided underground operations with limited services in areas of spotty, fixed coverage.

Wireless mesh technology is a self-forming network, where radio networks establish the routing through the mesh links as the equipment gets installed. Self-forming allows the rapid deployment (and, as necessary in mines and tunnels, the re-deployment) of voice and data services in underground working sections. Mesh networks – which use multiple RF links to connect any two points – are also self-healing, which provides inherent redundancy. With mesh networks, when one RF link is blocked due to interference, the network nodes will automatically re-route the call across other redundant links. While the wireless mesh nodes, which establish the radio coverage area, can be extended for miles underground, wireless broadband, ethernet, and fibre backhaul provide cost-effective connectivity to the above-ground operations centres. Moreover, the broadband backhaul supports the data capacity for additional applications, such as sensor networks, production reporting e-forms, and video monitoring.

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