It took industrial-strength protection to get a wireless network into cold, dirty environment

The average Wi-Fi access point in the average office building lives a quiet life on a wall. The most dangerous thing it faces is gradually collecting a thin layer of dust over the years.

APs in a mine, however, have to deal with humidity, cold, grime, the occasional brush with the shoulders of a huge dump truck and explosives.

That didn’t deter Toronto’s Dundee Precious Metals from building an underground Wi-Fi network at its Chelopech copper and gold mine in Bulgaria to better monitor personnel, vehicles and ore.

Actually, the access points weren’t the problem, says Mark Gelsomini, Dundee’s corporate IT director. It was making waterproof, dustproof and crush-resistant enclosures to protect them.

The goal was to improve communications so the mine could improve productivity through better data flow.

In the end the company made an complete underground communications system that is now being eyed by competitors.

The imperative came two years ago from then chief operating officer (now CEO) Rick Howes, who, in Gelsomini’s words wanted “to take the lid off the mine” and access what was going on.

“We needed to move data in real time from our vehicles and personnel,” said Gensomini, “so the development was to create a complete and sustainable Wi-Fi underground communications system” — including kits for vehicles to hold ruggedized tablets used by operators and software.

The concept might have been seen by some as daring, but not to Gensomini, a computer engineer who had worked for what was then IBM’s Celestica electronics manufacturing division on robotics, and then at chipmaker Genesis Microchip of Markham, Ont.

“I came from the high tech world where Wi-Fi is very prevalent, tracking where your chips are, what production runs, you get analytics from the machines. The only challenge was how to get underground.”

“My role was to provide the plumbing.”

The wireless network would be linked to a variety of transmitters sending data from vehicles on their rock loads, vehicle mechanical status, exact location of miners, the status of doors and ventilation fans.

Control room software would be able to judge where loads came from, where rock should be sent to and where empty vehicles should go next.

First, he had to determine if Wi-Fi could work underground and whether it could be done at a reasonable price. “You can buy stuff out there that is astronomically expensive,” he says. But “I’m a guy who believes in (following) standards — the path of least resistance.” Equipment needs to be maintained and repaired fairly easily, he says, because mines are messy places.

To do everything that was envisioned, Dundee created an end-to-end solution –the metal boxes to contain several hundred Cisco Systems Inc. [Nasdaq: CSCO] Aironet 1242 and 1350  802.11n 2.4 GHz access points, extended range antennas, the cases for communications boxes with industrial switches connected to 90 km of fibre optic lines that snake through the mine, rugged enclosures made with military-grade plastic for tablets, emergency boxes on walls for Linksys VoIP phones, protected vehicle antennas that can (somewhat) withstand being whacked on a mine ceiling, and custom “walkie-talkie” software.

Thanks to Dundee tweaking, APs that normally have a range of 200 metres could work 600 to 800 m. in a straight line, or 400 to 600 m. around a curve.

For keeping track of workers, AeroScout Inc.’s T3 Wi-Fi tags were enhanced to work underground and modified to sit in a miner’s hard hat and run off the light battery.

T3 tags were also modified for use in vehicles.

“Basically, we removed the limitations of growth in technology in an underground environment,” Gelsomini said.

“You want to bring an iPhone down? By all means. Bring a computer? Go for it.”

It wasn’t easy — it took 12 months and eight versions of the steel AP boxes alone before the system was good enough to withstand the rigors of a mine.

“I expected the environment to be worse,” Gelsomini says, but it was making things miner-proof that was the problem: “You can’t stop a 10-tonne truck from running over anything,” he says.

But he persisted because “the word ‘can’t’ doesn’t exist in my vocabulary.”

The data is fed into a number of applications from partners that included Dassault Systèmes’ Geovia mine management software, mobile planning software from IBM and AeroScout’s Mobile View asset visualization software.

“You can be in Toronto and see the entire operation on a screen in real time,” says Gelsomini.

Dundee’s research and development cost of creating the solution was an estimated $250,00 to $300,000.

But the result was a 20 per cent reduction of communications costs, productivity is up and lost time due to incidents is down.

The big lesson learned is that the first version of anything put underground won’t survive, he chuckles.

“There was a huge learning curve.”

In 2012 the mine processed 1.8 million tonnes of ore, producing 120,600 ounces of gold and 42.7 million pound of copper for earnings before interest, taxes and other deductions of $196 million.

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