L-3 digs into mining opportunity

Communications expertise finds new need to fill

On the surface, it might not seem as though the mining industry could provide much of a business opportunity for L-3 Communications Inc.

But once the New York-based company dug into it, officials found a potential $100 million a year in business.

And Vic Young, who has spent most of his career working on military communications systems, found himself with a new job — director of mine safety programs at L-3.

It all started when an L-3 employee pestered Young about whether any of the company’s wireless communications technologies worked underground.

“I blew it off, but he persisted,” Young said.

That was in 2006. By spring 2007, L-3 was besting 18 other bidders for a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) grant to develop a system that could provide voice and text communications and track miners’ locations underground.

L-3’s system uses commercial 900 MHz radios encased in ruggedized shells — the same ones L-3 uses for the military’s special forces radios.

“It is a rugged environment down there,” Young said.

L-3’s solution includes the radios and fixed mesh nodes — think underground cell towers. “They relay the signals,” he said. “If a bunch of these things go out, the [radio signal] will find another tower…to get out of the mine.”

Every 15 seconds, the devices look for the next closest node to connect to, Young said. The handheld radios serve as mini-nodes and can also help relay signals.

L-3 calls the system Accolade, and NIOSH and Pennsylvania have approved it for use in mines.

The approval comes as the mining industry faces a June 15 deadline that requires all mines in the United States to have a plan for implementing a wireless communications system.

The deadline is part of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006. That law was passed in the wake of a series of deadly mining accidents earlier that year.

With more than 600 mines in the United States working to comply with the MINER Act’s requirements, L-3 has dug into a new line of business.

“That is the driver right now,” Young said.

About the Author

Nick Wakeman is the editor-in-chief of Washington Technology. Follow him on Twitter: @nick_wakeman.

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