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Safety of people working in mines is about to increase with new technology that makes wireless communication possible deep within the Earth’s crust.
“Ever since the United States passed the MINER (Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response) Act of 2006 (the country’s most significant mine safety legislation in 30 years), there has been much more interest in the area of underground communications,” said Dr. Xavier Fernando, a Ryerson University researcher. “The mining industry is excited; it has been looking for better and more reliable forms of communication.”
In the harsh environment and changing topology of a mine, reliable communication is a necessity. While cell phones are the default means of communication above ground; they are useless below the surface. In addition, disasters can bring down electricity and communications cables, block tunnels and cause fires, all of which may hamper rescue efforts and endanger lives.
In response to these challenges, Fernando is making use of technology to provide communications coverage for confined spaces such as mines and tunnels. His solution to bringing signals underground is transmitting radio signals over optical fibers. This technology, called ROF for short, provides enough bandwidth to handle and maintain signals underground. What’s more, optical fibers are readily available and are unaffected by the electromagnetic interference or radiation commonly emitted by mining equipment.
ROF already provides wireless-communication access to the $985 million Niagara Tunnel, a massive hydroelectricity project sponsored by Ontario Power Generation. ROF also played a significant role in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. The wireless network there was able to support 500,000 phone calls during the Opening Ceremonies.
In the mining industry, ROF technology can also help officials identify miners and continuously track their movements. Therefore, in the event of a collapse, it would be easier to predict the location of each miner.
While ROF technology offers solutions, it also presents a problem: Since fiber-optic communication lines are not linear, signals can scatter, creating distortion at the receivers. However, Fernando has created and holds a patent for an algorithm that almost entirely compensates for the distortion.
Partnering with Mine Radio Systems (MRS) of Goodwood, Ontario, potential applications for the professor’s work are myriad – there are numerous mining and tunneling projects underway around the world, and each one of them requires high-tech communication systems.
To the same end, Dr. Fernando is also investigating a system of “Through-the-Earth” (TTE) signaling. Unlike higher-frequency communications, the ultra-low frequencies used in TTE technology (approximately 10 kilohertz) can penetrate water and rock. This capability would be invaluable to the mining industry as well, said Fernando.
“With this technology, officials could still maintain communication with a miner who is trapped and is likely covered by dirt and rocks.”

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