Wi-Fi goes underground with Mesh Dynamics

Now here’s an interesting place where Wi-Fi can prove tremendously useful: mining.

I spoke today to Byron Henderson at Mesh Dynamics, a wireless mesh vendor in California, that just signed a deal with Active Control Technology (ACT) to provide the wireless component of the latter’s ActiveMine solution, a communications, data and tracking system that enables a mining company to monitor personnel and equipment in both surface and underground mines (click here to read the full press release). ACT will use up to 3,000 Mesh Dynamics wireless nodes in its clients’ mining locations. ACT is a Canadian company that sells wireless network control and communication systems in extreme environments and a large part of their business is in mining.

Underground, there is no cellular wireless access of any kind, so mining companies have to set up their own wireless communications for monitoring the safety of their personnel and tracking equipment.

Why wireless communications are critical in mining

By now we’re aware of the terrible mining accidents that occur from time to time in various parts of the world. After the Sago mine disaster in West Virginia in January 2006, the US Congress passed the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act which requires underground coal mining firms to upgrade procedures, equipment and technology. These companies must provide two-way communications between underground and surface personnel and an electronic tracking system that allows surface personnel to determine the location of any persons trapped underground.

Recall that during the Sago disaster, the mining company initially told relatives of the mine workers that the latter were safe, only to backtrack a few hours later with the terrible news.

Although we will never eliminate mining accidents, one hopes that better monitoring and tracking will enable emergency workers to rescue trapped miners more quickly if they can use video and voice to locate them.

In dangerous mining environments where there is methane gas, all equipment has to be certified as “intrinsically safe” (i.e. they do not generate sparks). Mesh Dynamics is still going through a testing process to have their nodes certified as “intrinsically safe”. However, they are used today in a variety of mining environments such as hard rock and surface mines.

As you can see from this example, there are so many uses for Wi-Fi, not just in city environments, and some are critical to saving lives.