For many years, the mining industry has relied on two-way radio communication to support daily operations, but a new era of applications-based innovation is giving radio communication new relevance within the mining sector, writes Martin Chappell, general manager – radio channels, Motorola Solutions Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Islands.
Much has been written and said about the end of the mining boom in Australia. Among causes for concern are the continuing decline in commodity values and exports with major trading partners, global economic uncertainty and with IMF warnings that advanced economies are growing too slowly.
However, there are also opportunities, such as the surge in demand for lithium to fuel the growing use of electric cars and lithium-ion batteries.
The natural reaction and need for the mining sector in this environment is to do more with less – a requirement that typically creates a double-edged problem for miners: how to increase productivity targets without putting the safety of workers at risk.
This has driven technology innovation and the continued adoption of ‘big data’ solutions to increase performance – with everything from driverless trucks to remote operation centres and beyond forming part of the greater technology mix.
Yet, at a time when the industry stands to gain considerable benefit from increasing safety and productivity, continuing innovation to increase the performance and functionality of two-way radios is sometimes overlooked.
While the reputation for two-way radios has been forged upon providing clear and robust voice communication, the mining sector stands to gain more from the growing number of applications that are transforming radio devices into fully-featured digital productivity tools.
Industries including mining, transport and logistics, and manufacturing, which have been using two-way radios for decades, are best positioned to benefit from the growing suite of digital radio applications based on digital mobile radio (DMR) standard.
Today, these radios can connect to secure voice communication with smartphone users, identify, map and collaborate with personnel on a site, monitor the health of employees and more. And with more workers using their own smart devices on the job, push-to-talk apps are securely extending the reach of two-way radio networks to a far greater number of users carrying a wide range of communication devices.
Safety will always be paramount in mining with any failures in this area potentially causing tragic consequences for organisations, miners and their families.
‘Man Down’ apps have the potential to save miners’ lives by alerting supervisors to incidents in real-time. If a radio is tilted beyond 45 degrees for a pre-determined amount of time – potentially indicating the user has fallen or become incapacitated – an alarm is triggered, automatically notifying supervisors while pinpointing the exact location of the radio user.
With many miners spending much of their time working in remote locations and potentially alone, ‘Lone Worker’ apps are also growing in importance. These apps replace the need for users to routinely check in through voice calls with an automatic reminder to press a button on the radio to confirm they are alright. This provides a safe, reliable and non-distracting way for workers to check in.
Crucially, apps can also enable speed monitoring through GPS tracking. If a truck driver is going above the recommended speed on or between sites, operations are notified and can request the driver to slow down. This not only protects the safety of everyone on site, but also lowers the high maintenance costs on vehicles damaged from moving too fast.
Using voice call recording, mining companies can also monitor staff to ensure they’re working safely. This is particularly valuable after an incident occurs when data needs to be captured to drive future safety improvements.
Applications are also bringing huge productivity benefits to some of the largest mining organisations in Australia.
For large companies, it might take up to four hours every day to check in staff working across various sites. Today, using workforce management applications, employees can acknowledge acceptance of a job and let supervisors know where they are at all times by simply pressing a button, saving huge amounts of time and rapidly locating workers to manage their safety before on-site activities such as blasting occurs.
As the mining industry continues to face complex challenges, including reduced capital budgets, increasing the capability of core communications networks through productivity and safety-focused radio applications can help the industry protect its workers while reaching new levels of productivity.
While digital disruption will continue to play a significant role in the sector in years to come, companies making smart communications investments will be well placed to succeed in the new environment.