When an explosion ripped through a coal mine in Sago, W.Va., last January, the 13 miners trapped underground tried to signal their position by pounding on the mine’s metal fixtures. It didn’t work. In the 41 hours that rescuers searched, their exertions only led them to inhale more of the methane gas that eventually asphyxiated all but one of the trapped men. “If wireless communications makes it possible to talk with astronauts in space, then
why not miners underground?” asks Steve Barrett, president and CEO of Active Control Technology Inc., a Burlington, Ont., company that was inspired by the disaster to tackle the challenge of sending wireless signals deep into the earth.
Days before a section of Utah’s Crandall Canyon mine collapsed on Aug. 6, entombing six coal miners and leading to the deaths of three rescuers, Barrett was pitching that mine’s owners, Murray Energy, on his solution: a completely wireless system called ActiveMine that allows miners to communicate with the surface using cellphone-like devices. The wireless signal travels through the air of existing mine tunnels rigged with a complex web of wireless routers. The devices also carry radio frequency ID chips to track miners.
Several mines in West Virginia are embracing his vision—which runs from US$200,000 to US$ 1 million per mine—in safety plans they presented for approval to state authorities in July. This week, Barrett headed to Capitol Hill, asking lawmakers revising national mine standards to look beyond old walkie-talkie technologies and traditional hard-wired phones that can be cut off or obstructed. More than 1,000 U.S. mines need upgrades, and that’s just a start. The number of miners who died in accidents last year in China: somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000. M
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