by Grant Gross

After Deaths, Mining Industry Digs for IT Fix

Mar 15, 20063 mins
Data Center

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

Investment in mine safety technology has lagged for years, partly because the government hasn’t pushed for improvements. Mining regulations instead are focused on training and accident prevention, says Keith Pauley, CEO of the nonprofit Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research & Innovation Center (Matric). “The legislators think that if they prevent an accident, it’s better than reacting afterward,” he says.

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

The mining association has asked Grayson, a former coal mine manager, to head an independent commission on mine safety. Part of the commission’s work will be to examine which technologies could help. Meanwhile, the West Virginia legislature passed a bill requiring wireless communications inside mines. In the Sago mine explosion in Tallmansville, W.Va., where 12 miners died, fire damaged a wireline communications system, leaving the miners without a way to talk to the surface. Most U.S. mines use some type of wireline system, experts say.

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

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

Matric has also proposed that mines use a combination of technologies, including sensors to monitor miners’ vital signs and radio frequency identification systems to track vehicles inside mines. Other mining experts suggest using robots to scout out trapped miners, an idea that hasn’t caught on partially because of the high cost.

Grayson says the best solution is a mix of overlapping technologies, but deploying several different communications networks can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per mine.