THE LATEST DEVELOPMENTS IN COMMUNICATIONS AND TRACKING TECHNOLOGY

By Donna Schmidt, Field Editor

In a Pennsylvania field in July 2002, with many watching every turn, nine men were trapped at the Quecreek mine after a water inundation for nearly three days hoping for a safe rescue, while families at the surface prayed for a miracle. Both sides depended on an age-old protocol, beating on a pipe, to communicate location and condition — but not a word could be shared, of course, until each man reached the top of the borehole via that tiny rescue capsule, emerging from the section where the group had taken refuge. Every soul involved kept fingers crossed that the hole was being drilled into the right location and that all were in good health.

That now well-known disaster-turned-success, along with many other events over time that did not turn out nearly as happy, have all played an arterial role in the communications and tracking sector that is known today. Every year, technology is being polished and perfected that could not have been dreamed of a generation ago and will be crucial to saving lives long into the future.

When not being used for an emergency situation, many of these technologies are used for everyday conversations between workers, miners, and the surface, and the spot-on tracking of both personnel, equipment and assets as they all move through the operation.

It was the 2006 MINER Act that put into place a requirement for all underground coal mines to place electronic tracking systems, and what spurred a frenzy of research and development of communications and tracking technology that now include (but are not limited to) mesh networks, node-based designs, medium frequency and through-the-earth (TTE) systems, as well as radio frequency identification (RFID) and zone-based devices to enhance tracking that was previously performed only manually.

The industry has come a long way from the testing federal compliance officers with the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) conducted to evaluate system potential and the flood of approval applications that followed. There is still a steady flow of interest for federal approval of new and improved designs, and there are now nearly seven pages (viewable anytime here) of approved communications and tracking systems and peripherals that includes 10 leaky feeder products, more than two dozen tracking systems and devices, and two TTE designs that are currently available on the market.

With all of this activity, it seems the market is changing every day — and it is. Coal Age recently spoke with some communications and tracking companies about the latest R&D, what’s coming, and even how some systems are meeting the true meaning of comprehensive by offering additional applications for their respective mine sites.

American Mine Research’s new MineNet Mesh System offers completely wireless tracking, communications and atmospheric monitoring.
American Mine Research’s new MineNet Mesh System offers completely wireless tracking, communications and atmospheric monitoring.

AMR Picks Up MineNet Mesh Approval
American Mine Research has just announced that it has received MSHA Intrinsically Safe (IS) approval for its new MineNet Mesh System, a completely wireless tracking, communications and atmospheric monitoring system for use in underground mines. MineNet is AMR’s second-generation system; its first-generation MineNet system received MSHA approval in 2009.

The user-friendly MineNet Mesh System is fully adaptable to different frequencies, mine heights and conditions. AMR has added voice as a means of two-way communication for both production and emergencies, with a VoIP phone providing integrated tracking and voice, text or push-to-talk communications.

The system is further enhanced with the capability of atmospheric (gas) monitoring with AMR’s new wireless multigas sensor.

The device’s access points (APs) use IEEE 802.11 b/g for the wireless interface with data rates up to 100 Mbps. Because the system uses an open source protocol, it allows for customers to use many different Wi-Fi products such as laptops, PLCs, gas sensors, cameras and much more.

“We’ve taken the time needed to design this system based upon what mining companies want and need to exceed the requirements of the 2006 MINER Act and improve their productivity,” Bob Saxton, AMR general manager, said, adding that, over the past few years, AMR has asked for and received input from many mining companies to assist in the design.

“Miners can use AMR’s VoIP phone to place calls to individuals or groups underground and on the surface,” he said. “The system’s access points (APs) have been tested up to 2,000 ft between APs, underground in 42 in. coal, and have provided excellent coverage in these conditions. The new system’s design utilizes much smaller and lighter APs with multiple options for IS battery backup, and the overall system does not require as much hardware as 2009’s version.”

AMR is now seeking several international IS approvals for the new MineNet Mesh System.

Saxton said that the company understands the tough decisions mines need to make when examining the many varied choices for both communications and tracking.

The top considerations for mines, he explained, should begin with the user-friendly and multifunctional elements. AMR’s system, which is designed to be simple to learn and use, has an open protocol that supports videos, FaceTime and even has the capabilities for virus protection. It is ideal for mines both large and small and with both low and high coal in mind.

Service is also key, he pointed out. “We pride ourselves on that,” Saxton said of AMR’s presence across the country as well as its sizeable distribution network in other countries.

He also acknowledged the tough road still ahead for coal after the “downward spiral” of the market over the last several years. “Where the market has shrunk drastically,” noting that the potential of M&A activity and foreign involvement still to come could be a factor in coal’s future.

“While we all wait to see where those chips may fall,” Saxton said, “AMR is continuing to listen carefully to operators to make its initial design, a simple system with capabilities for every mine, even better.”

The StrataConnect system includes digital voice and wireless atmospheric monitoring.

Strata Pulls the Alarm
Strata Worldwide recently unveiled the latest incarnation of its HazardAvert system, a new and simplified, alarm-only personnel safety detection system known as HazardAlarm.

HazardAlarm, a single-generator system, creates a large electromagnetic field around the machine, but will only alarm when there is a potential collision between a miner and the machine. When a miner is in the electrometric field of the machine, but there is no potential for a collision, the HazardAlarm system will not alarm.

HazardAlarm utilizes the same miner-worn personal alarm device (PAD) as the HazardAvert system and will emit an audible and visual alarm when a miner is in a potential collision path with an oncoming piece of mobile machinery. If an alarm is triggered, both the miner in danger and the machine operator have the opportunity to react.

Additionally, the costs associated with installation as well as labor time are comparable to that of a camera system. Installations can be completed either on the surface or underground.

“HazardAlarm is a perfectly tailored product to meet the West Virginia proximity rule,” President and COO Mike Berube said. “Unlike cameras, HazardAlarm alerts both the operator and the miner in all situations, whether the miner is around a crosscut or behind a ventilation curtain.”

HazardAlarm alerts every individual involved and also works seamlessly with a continuous miner equipped with HazardAvert, he noted.

The HazardAlarm announcement is one of several growth milestones Strata has met in the last several months; the group that began as a roof control expert has now grown into a world leader in mine safety and electronics, including work to now apply its systems to more than just personnel communications and tracking but extend those capabilities to data retrieval on all operational assets and activities.

For example, this year Strata added the retrieval of atmospheric data in partnership with U.K.-based Trolex Ltd. The new Sentro-1 wireless battery-powered intrinsically safe sensor can monitor a choice of CO, CH4, H2S, or other gases throughout the mine environment and send the data to the surface. The sensor also provides two discrete inputs/outputs to monitor and control remote devices.

Strata is now also working to combine the machine data collected through HazardAvert proximity detection system with tracking information in the Strata CommTrac system to provide the mine operators an unprecedented view of production and operational statistics. Equipment and personnel location as well as mine metrics such as shuttle car trips, trip times and load times can be displayed in real time.

Additionally, Strata recently released the new CommTrac Air Module (CAM), which can easily be integrated into third-party devices to enable two-way communication. Haulage battery charging stations, haulage batteries, cap lamps, pumps, and other electronics devices can now all be remotely commanded and monitored.

IWT confirmed in February it had acquired longtime partner L-3 Communication Inc.’s ACCOLADE wireless mining communications business.
IWT confirmed in February it had acquired longtime partner L-3 Communication Inc.’s ACCOLADE wireless mining communications business.

IWT Taking a Growth Path
Innovative Wireless Technologies, known also as IWT, has been having a big year.

After 15 years in business, including an already very strong communications arm and the development of its own mesh networking technology, the company confirmed in February it had acquired L-3 Communication Inc.’s ACCOLADE wireless mining communications business.

IWT and L-3 were partners for four years prior, serving the underground coal market with communications and tracking equipment; L-3 served as the system integrator and IWT as the original equipment manufacturer for the majority of the ACCOLADE portfolio. As part of the agreement with L-3, IWT acquired the assets of L-3 NSS’s mining business including the ACCOLADE product line, all of its current and in-development products, as well as its substantial market share of mine customers.

IWT now serves the market through a network of certified distribution partners and representatives. According to Phil Carrier, IWT vice president of sales and marketing, thanks to a dedication to customer service, mine customers have realized a significant improvement in support from IWT and its partners. He said there are now more than 75 systems deployed, with many in everyday use in the Appalachian coalfields, and IWT’s technology enjoys the second-largest market share behind leaky feeder in the sector.

“As the wireless technology provider for ACCOLADE through its development, initial product launch and with ongoing technical support, we have been actively involved in the mining market for several years. We are a ‘hands-on’ type of company and are excited to be engaging the market directly, in close partnership with customers, to develop better products to serve the industry,” said IWT President and CEO Eric Hansen.

In 2012, IWT released the next-generation SENTINEL system, making significant improvements in ease of use and voice quality that were already a strength of the ACCOLADE system. Now, more than eight years after beginning development of its first communications system in response to the MINER Act of 2006, IWT continues to make improvements in performance and functionality.

One such product, launched earlier this year, is the Vehicle Mounted Radio (VMR). A rugged enclosure is powered by 12-V to 24-V vehicle power to provide vehicle tracking, or both tracking and communications. Many powered vehicles, especially diesel-powered mantrips, are extremely noisy, making it almost impossible to hear incoming calls, even with external speaker mics. IWT’s VMR uses an external, amplified speaker to make it easy to hear incoming calls, loud and clear. Many mines can eliminate a leaky feeder system that has been maintained solely for vehicle communications, resulting in significant cost savings.

Both the ACCOADE and SENTINEL systems exceed the requirements specified by federal and state regulatory groups. Both offer voice communications as well as text and tracking, all in one digital wireless network. Fixed mesh nodes (FMNs), installed in the primary and secondary escapeways, operate as repeaters. The use of 900MHz as the operating frequency (optimum for coal) and directional antennas enables the FMNs to be spaced up to 2,500 ft apart, depending on seam height. FMNs receive voice calls or text messages from handsets and “hop” the signals from node to node until reaching the intended recipient(s).

Unlike other technologies that require centralized management or hubs, such as leaky feeder or WiFi-based systems, every node in IWT’s mesh technology can communicate directly with any other node in the system. This “peer-to-peer” architecture automatically re-routes signals when interference is present (like large vehicles between nodes), resulting in reliable performance, redundancy and no single point of failure. The handsets or location-only devices carried by miners are tracked in real-time throughout the network.

The Dispatch Station tracking software displays the location of miners relative to the position of FMNs. During installation, the location of each FMN is placed on the mine map, which is easily imported in its original AutoCAD dwg file format.

IWT has also expanded beyond communications and tracking systems mandated by the MINER Act. This is showcased with a new mine rescue system developed in response to a request by MSHA to the industry for improved communications to support mine rescue operations. Significant field testing by MSHA and mine operators resulted in a system that speeds up the exploration process while enhancing the safety of the mine rescue teams. The system has received Intrinsically Safe certification and MSHA has purchased the system for one of its mine rescue teams. The system will be formally introduced to industry later this year.

Set for release in 2014, Matrix’s MX3 offers a mine-wide communications system with voice and text communications, as well as tracking, atmospheric monitoring and control systems.
Set for release in 2014, Matrix’s MX3 offers a mine-wide communications system with voice and text communications, as well as tracking, atmospheric monitoring and control systems.

Matrix Making Strides with MX3
Matrix Design Group is another member of the communications and tracking community working diligently to keep mines on the cutting edge of communications technology, primarily through the testing of its MX3 in various underground mining conditions. MX3, set for release in 2014, is the company’s newest mine-wide communications system that takes on both voice and text communications as well as tracking, atmospheric monitoring and control systems.

The new release operates on a single high-speed and redundant network made up of hybrid nodes along with fully wireless nodes, bringing together the best part of a standalone-wireless node system with its own previous-generation systems, standalone AMS systems, and even conventional mine monitoring and control technologies to create a single system that is both low maintenance and cost effective.

Matrix designed the voice and text communications for the MX3 around small and rugged handsets that hold a battery life of more than 18 hours (based on an 80-10-10 duty cycle) and also feature advanced noise cancellation for high-noise environments as well as a removable battery pack. On the tracking side, the system has a new version of its very popular T1000 “puck” tracking tag on board; the small, inexpensive and ultra-durable tag — which can be provided with tabs for equipment mounting — has a guaranteed two-year battery life and a “man down” feature (optional).

Finally, at the heart of the Matrix MX3 system are advanced hybrid fixed nodes that have wired and wireless capabilities; this, in turn, permits sites to achieve high-speed data transfer and routing along mains as well as travelways.

The company makes fully wireless nodes available for operational areas where communications and data needs are temporary and any fixed infrastructure must be minimized. Sites can also use standard fixed nodes, via easy-to-terminate coaxial cables that carry both data and power, and nodes with fiber connections are also available.

Where travel is not routine, Matrix also has wireless nodes available with external battery packs that provide extended-life operation.

NLT’s Genesis cap lamp recently received IS certification from MSHA for use in U.S. coal mines.
NLT’s Genesis cap lamp recently received IS certification from MSHA for use in U.S. coal mines.

NLT Gets Green Light on its Bright Idea
It is not just communications and tracking systems technologies that are moving at light speed, the peripherals side of the sector has plenty to share as of late. One of those advancements is the announcement of the world’s first MSHA-approved cordless cap lamp with tag, the Genesis cap lamp from Northern Light Technologies.

Canadian-based NLT, no stranger to having a mining world first, said earlier this year that its newest cap lamp recently received IS certification from MSHA for use in U.S. coal mines. The Genesis is enabled with six different WiFi and RFID tag solutions, including the MSHA-ceritifed Aeroscout, Ekahau, Wavetrend, Indentec and Newtrax.

The tracking tag-enabled, cordless Genesis is often referred to as the “big brother” to the hugely popular Northern Light Polaris because of its similar look and feel, but with a slightly increased depth of the back housing to accommodate a personnel tracking tag.

NLT Global President Heidi Levitt said the MSHA approval for Genesis came with the Aeroscout tracking tag installed, but the “tag ready” lamps have also been approved.

Because of this, the cap lamp has MSHA approval on its own; if the customer wants to install a tag in the future, such as the Wavetrend to use one example, it may be submitted for MSHA approval.

Levitt said, “NLT is excited about the MSHA approval because mines in the U.S., Canada and Mexico can now ensure miners who enter the underground are being tracked for safety purposes, as the tag is enclosed and powered by the Genesis cap lamp.

“The fact that the Genesis battery is powering the Aeroscout tag means that, as long as your lamp is working, you know the tag is, too,” she said, adding that, “No other company offers an IS-approved cordless lamp/tracking tag combination today, no other company offers the flexibility of tagging choices within a cordless lamp as NLT does with the Genesis, with a selection of RFID and WiFi enabled tags.”

The PBE Group received MSHA approval for its BDA-4 earlier this year.
The PBE Group received MSHA approval for its BDA-4 earlier this year.

Pyott-Boone Keeps Steady
There are many active operations today that, when asked, would change nothing about the backbone of their communications, their leaky feeder systems. Yet much work on making the systems better and more robust goes on daily, including that being done by Pyott-Boone Electronics.

This spring, PBE earned MSHA approval on a new bidirectional line amplifier for leaky feeder systems known as the BDA-4.

The BDA-4 amplifier provides local and optional remote diagnostics to indicate the current state of the amplifier for ease of maintenance of a site’s leaky feeder system, and also supports voice and high-speed data transmission while incorporating bidirectional amplifiers and has wired and wireless interconnectivity and a third auxiliary band (that third amplified band can be used for paging, radio or evacuation systems).

Also, the amplifier permits personnel from PBE and a vehicle tracking system to become a hybrid solution by offering the underground tag reader enclosed in the amplifier. This hybrid solution serves to further reduce the cost of adding key safety products, including underground tracking, by eliminating additional power and cabling needs.

“The leaky feeder system performs optimally when each amplifier in the system is adjusted to minimize degradation of signal to noise ratio,” CEO Stuart Champion de Crespigny said.

“[The] new BDA-4 amplifier has a provision for that adjustment to be made either manually or automatically that can be accomplished locally at the device or remotely from the surface allowing the device to operate autonomously after installation.”

The BDA-4 Bidirectional Line Amplifier is part of PBE’s leaky feeder system, which as a whole provides a reliable and simple-to-use underground communications system including local and optional remote diagnostics, a built-in tag reader, support for voice and high-speed data transmission, and the incorporation of the aforementioned third auxiliary band with the bidirectional amplifiers.

Additionally, it has independent Automatic Gain Control (AGC) circuits to overcome signal level changes and variation in system losses, and ties together a SAW filter design to increase bandwidth and provide superior RF performance. The system also offers high noise immunity, three multiplatform communications adapter (MPCA) slots and both wired and wireless interconnectivity.

Production of the BDA-4 began in April.

The announcement follows PBE’s confirmation in June that it had acquired Canadian-based Mine Radio Systems. All MRS products are now owned by PBE under the deal which Stuart Champion de Crespigny called “a perfect fit” to “[solidify] our commitment to customer oriented global sales and local service.”

Regulatory Perspective: Keeping Lines of Conversation Open
MSHA Approval and Certification Center New Technology Program Manager David Chirdon recently spoke with Coal Age to provide some insight into the current communications and tracking sector, noting some surprising trends across the nation’s coal industry as of late.

At press time, there were approximately 20 MSHA-approved communication and tracking systems and, of those, about 10 to 12 are being used presently in underground coal mines.

Some of the approved peripherals now in use include handheld radios and text messaging devices as well as VoIP phones and tracking tags.

At this time, he added, all underground coal mines that are required to have post-accident communication and tracking systems have installed systems that are in compliance.

In terms of trends for mines, Chirdon cited a recent survey conducted by the National institute for Occupational Safety and Health of all installed communication and tracking systems.

“This survey shows a slight trend away from wired and leaky feeder communication systems toward wireless, node-based systems,” he said.

He noted that there is also a lot of interest and effort right now in developing through-the-earth communications systems.

“MSHA has approved two such systems and is evaluating for approval several additional TTE systems,” nothing that there are still some challenges, such as depth limitations.

Moving ahead, Chirdon said the short-term future in terms of communication systems looks bright, with much work under way.

“Most current research targets development of secondary communication systems, which includes TTE and medium-frequency systems,” he said.


Rajant, Becker Wholesale Ink Strategic Partnership

Kinetic Mesh Networks producer Rajant Corp. and Pennsylvania-based supplier Becker Wholesale Mine Supply have announced a strategic partnership under which Becker WMS will offer Rajant’s kinetic mesh technology for broadband communication network challenges in the U.S. and abroad.

The pairing is already delivering results, as Rajant and Becker WMS were recently selected to deploy Rajant’s network at North American Coal Corp.’s Sabine mine in Texas. The previous network installation needed to be replaced, and the team at Sabine was seeking a unified approach that provided a reliable, scalable wireless network and a robust support team.

The Sabine mine is spread out over a very large area with two active pits with four drag lines, and consists of multiple vehicles, equipment and personnel dispersed over rugged terrain. As a result, the North American Coal operation needed a highly flexible, self-configuring network that could establish and maintain a secure connection across multiple moving assets with no downtime.

“The manufacturer and distributor reps were extremely helpful in the initial rollout of the Rajant equipment — they went above and beyond what I have ever seen,” said Matt Hampton, electrical supervisor at the Sabine mine. “The Rajant gear and software is easy to learn and use.”

Jason Murray, manager of information technology at the operation, reported that the Rajant system took just a few days to roll out and worked immediately. “It has been working without issues since we installed it,” he said.

Since the original installation at Sabine mine, the company has continued to expand its Rajant network by adding 10 more nodes across the second pit.