Mobile Tech: Chile’s Unsung Hero

Joining one billion people worldwide, I spent last week watching the drama unfold in a northern Chilean desert as rescue workers pulled to safety all 33 miners who’d spent 69 days trapped half a mile undeground. The miners’ families, engineers, Chilean President Pinera, and rescue workers all played important roles in the operation’s success. But out of this remarkable story emerges an unsung hero worth mentioning. An operation of this sophistication would not have enjoyed success without the mobile communication technologies which made the whole thing possible.

Mobile tech at the mine

Mobile communication technologies made it easy for rescue crews to monitor the miners throughout their ordeal. Through three 6”-wide holes bored side-by-side into their underground refuge, “Los 33” received remote imaging and communications equipment sent down through 5-foot tubes, or palomas. These TV cameras and microphones, according to TechNews Daily, allowed the rescuers to visually evaluate the situation before moving forward.

A single fiberoptic communications cable, produced jointly by Chile’s state copper company and a Japanese technology firm, served as the refuge’s electronic umbilical cord. Its high-capacity cable was designed specifically to adapt to the flexes and curves of the bore hole, allowing the rescue team to transfer video, images, and audio with the trapped miners.

Chilean reporter Alexis Ibarra visited the mine in August to drop down three miniature projectors. One of these was the Samsung i7410 mobile phone, a cell phone with a built-in projector the miners used to watch family messages and soccer videos. TVN, Chile’s state-run TV station, was even able to transmit Chile’s soccer game against Ukraine live into the miner’s refuge using the fiberoptic cable and the Samsung handset/projector. Other mobile devices, such as Sony PSPs, next-gen portable speakers, and iPods, were also lowered down to the miners through the palomas.

In the weeks leading up to the miners’ ascent, Annapolis-based mobile telemetry firm Zephyr was called in to provide the digital tools necessary to help rescuers monitor the health of Los 33. Their Physiological Status Monitoring (PSM) solution tracked the miners’ hear rates, body temperatures, respiration levels, and more, transmitting the data to medics monitoring 2,000 feet overhead. During their 15-minute ascent to the surface, the miners donned a special PSM vest to ensure they didn’t black out. They also hooked up to a Panasonic ToughBook U1 laptop, a durable, touchscreen device used by first responders and other emergency technicians.

Mobile tech across the globe

As remarkable as the rescue effort itself were the technologies used to transmit the event to people’s TVs, phones, and computers across the world. Inmarsat’s BGAN network solution was the key to relaying the video feed from the mine to the media. Using Stratos Global’s global IP network, it provided an ad-hoc, reliable, broadband feed directly to broadcasters’ headquarters world-wide. In short, a global communications network efficiently and reliably emerged in a time of crisis to publicize the event across the planet.

Once this video was made available to the global audience, viewers and social media users tuned in in record numbers. Online live video streaming service Ustream drew 5.3 million viewers, eclipsing the all-time record held by Michael Jackson’s memorial service. CNN.com served 3 million live video streams, representing a 2,700% increase over the average. On the mobile end, CNN application downloads to smart phones jumped 250 percent.

Other media outlets enjoyed huge spikes in online traffic,particularly among the Spanish-speaking population. Univisión’s online news service attracted 18% more unique visits than the previous record held on Election Day 2008. Its mobile service, Univisión Móvil, received 2.7 million page views, just shy of the all-time record established during the World Cup.

Mashable put together a great list of other digital, social media, and mobile successes, including:

  • 104,000 tweets were sent per hour referencing the rescue.
  • Fox News attracted 2.4 times its normal audience size, drawing the greatest viewership since Election Day 2008.
  • Google searches for the rescue jumped from an average of 243 million to 600 million.

All said and done, the Chile rescue was as successful for the online world as it was for the miners themselves. CNN reports that overall Internet traffic jumped up to 20% worldwide, which Akamai documents as the fifth-highest since it started recording data five years ago.

Looking Ahead

Perhaps most exciting about the use of global communications and mobile technology during the Chile rescue is the new tech currently being developed for similar situations in the future. In the U.S., two companies are working on emergency wireless networks that function deep underground using devices safe for use in highly flammable environments. In Australia, Inmarsat’s IsatPhonePro is set to launch, providing the world’s first made-for-miners satellite mobile phone. And military contract heavyweight Raytheon has developed a sophisticated navigation system for underground use, similar to GPS.

As “Los 33”prepare for book deals and soccer with presidents, it’s worth taking a moment to recognize that the entire story’s success -- both operationally at Camp Hope and as the event was broadcast across the world -- hinged upon the instrumental role played by global mobile technology. From providing the trapped miners with reliable communication to transmitting the event live across the world, the Chilean rescue should be admired as a testament to the growing power of global communications technology.

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