Mining, agricultural firms try underground wireless for communication

A mining company in Saskatchewan is using a wireless underground communication system designed by SaskTel to improve communications across its mine, which spans 20 km.

SaskTel partnered with Cameco to build cellular towers at its remote uranium mines at Cigar Lake and Rabbit Lake in northern Saskatchewan. And the telco is working with Cameco and Areva Resources – another player in the uranium industry – to build cellular towers at other sites, including McClean Lake. The other mining companies are using cellular technology to keep the lines open in the far northern reaches of the province, where it’s difficult to find a landline.

SaskTel has gone a step further by developing a system for Agrium that can be used underground at its potash operation in Vanscoy, just outside of Saskatoon. The system, which has been in place for about a year, is being used as far as 3,700 feet underground.

“We’re like every other mine, we’ve got hard-wired phones at specific locations, but the mine is probably about 20 km end to end,” said Lawrence Berthelet, mine manager of Agrium’s Vanscoy Potash Operations.

In the past, the mine used a code of lights. If somebody wanted to get a hold of you, said Berthelet, they would use your specific code. Then, when you saw your light at a paging station, you would find the nearest hard-wired phone to make the call.

“If you were phoning my office today and I was underground, my phone would ring in my pocket and I would answer it and you would hear me clear as a bell,” he said.

Agrium is using about 150 phones, which are provided to mechanics, tradesmen and the foreman, as well as anyone working in a remote area of the mine. The phones are also robust enough to handle a dusty and dirty environment.

The wireless VoIP system combines equipment from Cisco and Nortel and can carry data and voice underground – unlike cellular, which typically has limitations of terrain. Using a system of repeater stations that send a signal up to the surface, a phone can be used most anywhere in the mine, so long as there’s a visual between repeater stations. “The communication is 10 times better,” said Berthelet.

The system is also designed to enhance safety and efficiency, and future applications can be added to the system. This year, Agrium plans to add ID tagging and asset management to the system so it can track assets between repeater stations. The company also plans to extend the system. Currently, it covers about 95 per cent of the mine, but there are still a few areas where hard-wired phones are being used.

SaskTel will consider selling the same type of system to other companies. “We’re using this perhaps as a bit of a springboard but it’s something [we] can market to other like industries,” said Darcee MacFarlane, general manager of corporate affairs with SaskTel.

The telco has subsidiaries in B.C., Alberta and Manitoba. “We’d certainly be looking at exporting this if there was a requirement or a demand,” she added.

SaskTel is finalizing negotiations with Areva for another cellular tower. “These sites are in our far north,” said MacFarlane. “They are very rural, remote areas.” SaskTel covers about 95 per cent of the province’s population with cellular service, but these areas fall within the other five per cent.

“These are such far north locations that it does provide the ability for the miners to keep in touch and that was a key component of this,” she said. “They can now just pick up the phone, which people here take for granted, and keep in touch with their family.”


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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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