Voice over Wi-Fi for mines unveiled

Voice over Wi-Fi is getting more popular among health care workers and academics, but it also being targeted at the $40 billion Canadian mining industry, according to Natural Resources Canada.

As mining companies introduce two-way communications and surveillance systems to improve safety, vendors are touting Wi-Fi as one way of building networks in a rugged environment, which typically has long tunnels that are not always high enough for men to stand upright.

One vendor such Active Control Technology Inc. a Burlington, Ont.-based firm that announced this week the Starfish middleware – an add-on to its ActiveMine product. ActiveMine uses a mesh network, comprised of access points and software, to let miners send voice and video traffic using the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11 set of protocols.

ActiveMine includes off-the-shelf products from other manufacturers, including wireless mesh technology MeshDynamics Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif. It also includes positioning technology from Saratoga, Calif.-based Ekahau Inc.

The Starfish middleware is designed to let search and rescue workers find trapped miners.

“They could speak to the miners, know where they are and track them,” said Steve Barrett, Active control’s chief executive officer. He added Active Control is selling the product mainly in the U.S., although it is working with two Canadian mining companies, whose names he is not making public.

A major driving force in the U.S. market is the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, which took effect two years ago and requires mine operators to install wireless two-way communications and electronic tracking systems. The legislation was enacted as a result of the Sago mine disaster in West Virginia in 2006, which trapped 13 miners, only one of whom survived. Canadian safety standards are covered in the Canada Labour Code Volume 2.

Barrett said ActiveMine is designed not only to help search and rescue teams but also to improve productivity.

“It’s very high bandwidth and our system is able to accommodate a lot of data and a lot of cameras,” he said, adding ActiveMine can transmit at 22 Megabits per second in each direction, and could potentially work on Zigbee networks.

Some mines are also installing a higher-speed version of Wi-Fi, dubbed 802.11n, which has yet to be standardized, said Stan Schatt, vice-president and research director at ABI Research of Oyster Bay, N.Y.

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“In mines, that would make a huge difference,” Schatt said. “Wi-Fi phones are replacing the two-way phones and the walkie talkies.”

A major advantage of 802.11n is the multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) technology, which is less likely to drop packets, Schatt added.

Voice over Wi-Fi is tricky because it has very little tolerance for latency, or delay over the network, Barrett said.

“To cover a large mine, you’re going to end up with quite a dense mesh network with many hops, and if you do not control latency and you’re running 25 plus milliseconds per hop, you can only do a handful of hops before you get distorted voice,” he added.

Active Control has a patent pending on the method and process used to reduce latency, which includes the ability to maximize range between nodes underground and, therefore, reduce density of the mesh.

Barrett said ActiveMine is designed to meet safety standards designed to prevent a spark, which is important in coal mines where methane gas can concentrate.

Although 802.11 technology is useful for mines, the biggest markets for voice over WiFi right now are health and education, Schatt said.

“We’re seeing some pickup in universities because faculty and administrators are on the go quite a bit and not at their desks.”

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