Australia's mining and gas firms are ramping up their move from analogue to digital radio systems as the resources sector continues its push to digitise more aspects of operations.
Major mining and energy companies, including Rio Tinto, Woodside, Fortescue Metals Group (FMG), and BG Group (owner of QGC), have commenced or competed digital radio network projects around the country.
QGC is rolling out a Terrestrial Trunked Radio (TETRA) digital radio system on its QCLNG project in southern Queensland, consisting of radio towers at several sites and a network of 1500 radio units.
Rio Tinto has also implemented TETRA systems at a number of its projects throughout Western Australia, interfacing with its remote operations centre in Perth.
Woodside Energy operates a digital radio management system on its North Rankin A and Angel platforms on the Western Australian North West Shelf, with the North Rankin B platform set to come online next year.
And FMG has also selected TETRA for a digital voice and data communications network for its mining operations in Western Australia.
CSC Australia's principal communications consultant Murray Wales told iTnews that while analogue radio has been very reliable, the move to digital is now comprehensive.
"Pretty much every mine site, every oil rig in the world, has an analogue radio system, and that migration from analogue to digital is in full swing," Wales noted.
Navigating the standards
Digital radio provides functionality not possible on an analogue system, including telemetry control, fleet management, GPS, and dedicated emergency channels. More importantly, perhaps, it also offers increased radio unit battery life and a better quality of audio transmission.
Digital radio encompasses three major technologies—TETRA, Project 25 (P25) and Digital Mobile Radio (DMR).
"In Australia we have all those three technologies available to us, whereas in the US it is just P25 and DMR, and in Europe TETRA and DMR," Wales said.
Wales said initial technology decisions in Australia were based on spectrum availability.
"In the early days in Australia, there wasn't the spectrum for TETRA that was applicable to mining sites. So, initially P25-based systems were going in," he said.
"More recently, of the last four systems CSC has been the technology lead [for], one has been P25 and the other three have been TETRA."
TETRA and P25 had different advantages, Wales said.
"P25 is high power, longer distance, and has more frequencies that [it] can work with — UHF or VHF," Wales commented.
"Typically it is used on rail systems and really big mines where the distances are great."
While TETRA operates only in UHF spectrum, it possesses an attribute the other technologies don't: full duplex voice operation.
"What that means is TETRA radio can be used as a mobile phone as well as on a private network," Wales observed. "P25 does not have that."
Motorola's strategic accounts general manager, Neale Joseph, told iTnews that while TETRA and P25 are both viable platforms, the full duplex capability of TETRA made it attractive.
"For TETRA you can talk and listen simultaneously," Joseph stated. "For P25 and DMR it is only half duplex.
"Size and weight are pretty similar, and the handset size is dropping. The critical features are moving closer and closer together, and it becomes a choice of what platform is right."
Wales highlights the safety benefits of moving to a digital communications system.
Digital radios, he said, carried a red button that put in a priority call to a safety channel that is monitored 24x7.
"The call is prioritised," he said. "It's not impacted by any congestion.
"The lone worker previously, if he collapsed and he had a radio he could crawl to his radio and call for help. If he could get to his radio he may not have been heard, because the channels so were so congested."
Joseph said that GPS monitoring could also provide vital notification of a safety issue.
"If radios move 90 degrees and stay that way for 30 seconds to the vertical, an emergency beacon will be sent off," he said.
"An operator in the control room will be in contact and be able to identify the worker within three metres."
Feeding into automation
Joseph notes the move to digital radio is part of a broader shift towards site automation.
Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton are progressively implementing a wide range of digital capabilities, as they move to remote control of mining equipment.
"IP connected digital radio and wireless technologies are the backbone of real-time operational data [feeds]," Wales adds.
Digital radio is also expected to be integrated with an increasing number of IT systems that underpin automated environments.
"The future is really all about applications: the ability to link radio systems with any IT system internally," Joseph said.
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