After deaths the mining industry digs for IT fix

After four mining accidents in January and early February killed 16people in West Virginia, industry experts are studying whetherinformation technology can help to prevent future fatalities. Butthere’s little agreement about which technologies can do the mostgood.

Investment in mine safety technology has lagged for years, partlybecause the government hasn’t pushed for improvements. Miningregulations instead are focused on training and accidentprevention, says Keith Pauley, CEO of the nonprofit Mid-AtlanticTechnology, Research & Innovation Center (Matric). “Thelegislators think that if they prevent an accident, it’s betterthan reacting afterward,” he says.

Meanwhile, the mining industry has been “lulled to sleep” bydecreasing accident rates, says R. Larry Grayson, a professor ofmining engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla. Since 1990,U.S. mine injuries have declined by 51 percent and fatalities byalmost 67 percent, according to the National Mining Association.”This year, all of a sudden, has turned that all around,” Graysonsays.

The mining association has asked Grayson, a former coal minemanager, to head an independent commission on mine safety. Part ofthe commission’s work will be to examine which technologies couldhelp. Meanwhile, the West Virginia legislature passed a billrequiring wireless communications inside mines. In the Sago mineexplosion in Tallmansville, West Virginia, where 12 miners died,fire damaged a wireline communications system, leaving the minerswithout a way to talk to the surface. Most U.S. mines use some typeof wireline system, experts say.

Other technologies have potential to improve mine safety byenabling miners to communicate more reliably with rescuers. Buteven the best options are far from perfect, says Matt Ward,managing director of Varis Mine Technology. Varis makescommunications products such as “leaky feeder” cables, whichtransmit wireless voice, video and data through a cable that can bestrung throughout a mine. The cable “leaks” radio signals, actingmuch like a surface antenna. But, like telephone wires, the cablescan be severed in a mine collapse or damaged by fire.

Another technology, ultra-low frequency text-messaging, wouldenable communication from outside mines without cables or wires.But it works only one way. Anyone on the surface could transmitmessages underground, but workers inside the mines could not sendmessages in return.

Matric has also proposed that mines use a combination oftechnologies, including sensors to monitor miners’ vital signs andradio frequency identification systems to track vehicles insidemines. Other mining experts suggest using robots to scout outtrapped miners, an idea that hasn’t caught on partially because ofthe high cost.

Grayson says the best solution is a mix of overlappingtechnologies, but deploying several different communicationsnetworks can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per mine.

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