Digging Underground – Wirelessly

It sounds like something out of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Deep underground, a huge Toro 0011 loader with a 25-foot wide shovel scrapes up and dumps ore in hoppers. The cab of the vehicle is eerily empty—the machine appears to be driving itself. Meanwhile, 12 miles away on the surface, in the comfort and safety of a control room, an operator at a computer with a video monitor directs two or three of the slow-moving machines from his console at the same time.

It’s not science fiction. The remote control mining system is already in use in Finland and will be soon in Chile. The video from the mine and the commands that control the loaders are both carried over a Wi-Fi network, but not just any Wi-Fi network. In this kind of extreme industrial environment it takes special equipment. The system at the Pyhäsalmi mine in Finland uses new products from Radionet, a Finnish Wi-Fi equipment maker with an impressive track record.

“The reliability of the Wi-Fi network, in terms both of the ruggedness of the equipment and also the reliability of the signal are absolutely critical to the operation of the mine,” explains Angela Champness, Radionet’s Canadian-born chairman and CEO. “The benefit is increased efficiency for the mine—they can mine more in less time—and the safety of workers.”

Radionet is now looking to sell its fault-tolerant RN-1000 solution into other demanding environments where high availability is a key requirement—including mines, tunnels, ports and container terminals. The solution is composed of three components: the wireless access point, the mobile terminal and the terminal server to control the whole system. The solution uses external sectorised antennas specially designed to meet the needs of industrial applications.

The RN-1000 products are a further evolution of the already rugged outdoor mobile Wi-Fi system Radionet developed in the early 2000s for city-wide Wi-Fi hotzone-and-access networks—the company’s principal application market. Radionet already has about 50 networks up and running, almost all in Europe.

They include the eight networks managed by members of Zonet, an interlinked federation of WISPs in small and mid-size Finnish cities. Zonet has a total of more than 500 outdoor access points and urban and rural coverage over an almost 500-square-mile area. Residential or business subscribers can not only roam within their own cities, they can also use Zonet access services when they visit the other cities.

“The more successful implementations are in small and medium-sized rather than big cities,” Champness says. “In the big cities, it’s hard for the smaller WISPs to get above the noise.”

One of the biggest of the Zonet affiliates is in Vantaa, a city of 200,000 near the country’s capital, Helsinki. It includes 150 APs and covers 50 square miles. The Radionet network in Mäntsälä, a town of 20,000 people 40 miles north of Helsinki, includes 90 base stations and, with point-to-point wireless links, has urban and rural coverage in an area of almost 250 square miles.

These are all serious money making ventures, costing several hundred thousand to provision and implement. Some are very successful. The WISP in Mäntsälä, for example, holds a 40% share of the broadband access market, Champness says.

Many of the Radionet installations start with a city government wanting to provide broadband access to residents and businesses where none is available or the only service available is too expensive—a familiar enough story. “The city may also need it for emergency services or worker mobility,” Champness explains. “But they don’t want to operate the network themselves. There may be public money involved, but they bring in a wireless ISP to operate it. We’re just the equipment manufacturer.”

The WISP, or it may be a wireline ISP looking to extend its coverage, typically uses city rights of way—lamp posts, power poles and roof tops to site the access points. The Radionet network architecture provides coverage from outside in. The APs are almost always outside. If good coverage doesn’t extend far enough into a building, Radionet can provide a window antenna kit.

When the company started selling its equipment in 2002 and 2003, usually competing against big international suppliers, very little was available that was designed for city-wide networks. “If others were doing it at all, they would usually just take their standard access points and try to put them in outdoor enclosures,” Champness says. “That might work with one-access point hotspots, but not for a city-wide outdoor network. Our system was designed from the ground up for large-scale, carrier-grade environments.”

The Radionet equipment always enjoyed a couple of key differentiators, Champness says. One is that it’s a routed, not a bridged network. “If you’re doing a city-wide implementation, you want a routed network,” she says.

Another is the back-end controller that remotely manages the infrastructure and handles triple A functions. One of its other critical functions is managing hand-offs from one access point to another as subscribers move around the city. Radionet’s patented MageIP technology means that users don’t have to download and install special client software for hand-offs to work.

“That’s great from the operator standpoint,” Champness notes, “because you want any Wi-Fi device to be able to associate with your network. The more the better from their point of view.”

The Radionet equipment for city-wide networks was also built from the ground up for outdoor use, able to withstand shock and vibration, temperatures from -40 to +55 Celsius and high humidity. “There are a lot of things you need to think about when designing products for outdoor environments,” Champness says. “In ports, for example, you’ve got a lot of humidity related issues.”

The new RN-1000 products for extreme industrial environments take the ruggedization a step further. The access points, for example, now comply with a higher IP (Ingress Protection) rating that warrants the enclosure is not only completely dust proof but can also be immersed in water. The IP ratings were developed by the European Committee for Electro Technical Standardization (CENELEC).

The industrial products also add new levels of fault tolerance throughout the network. Those same fault tolerance features have recently been made available in Radionet’s city-wide network systems. The company also announced last month it is incorporating mesh-like dynamic routing capabilities using OSPF (Open Shortest Path First) routing. OSPF is a technology used by many wireline network service providers. Incorporating it in Radionet’s products will make it easier for wireline ISPs to integrate wireless extensions to their existing networks, Champness says.

Radionet’s main focus to date has been Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It has installations in Sweden, Spain, the Netherlands, the UK, and Chile. However, it is now set to invade North America. Through partner Wi-LAN, Radionet is involved in as yet unannounced city-wide hotzone installations in western Canada, and it is currently looking for U.S. distributors that can sell both the hotzone and industrial products.

The fact that the company is based in Finland should not come as a huge surprise, Champness says. The country has for years been a hotbed of technology and ideas. Linux pioneer Linus Torvalds is Finnish, for example. The company hired Champness when it was trying to “internationalize.” Her base in Amsterdam also fit that purpose. Champness is a veteran of Netherlands-based Lucent and Agere Wi-Fi product development facilities and a founding member of the Wi-Fi Alliance.

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