Mining is a dangerous business. But it might be getting a little safer thanks to wireless tech, a key part of a new underground comms and miner-locating network dubbed Accolade.
The system has been developed by L-3 Communications (#39 on our list of the Most Innovative Companies) in response to the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, which was signed into law shortly after the Sago, West Virginia disaster that killed 12 miners.
At heart, the idea of Accolade is simple: A number of data networking nodes are dotted throughout the mine’s tunnels, and they can be placed up to thousands of feet apart, depending on the geometry and conditions in the mine. This “mesh” communicates with a ruggedized cell-phone-like handset that each miner carries, and which has a unique identifier ID. The ensuing network lets miners communicate with each other wherever they are, and to the surface controllers using both voice and text, and, more importantly, it lets the operator track the position of every miner.
In the case of an emergency, this positional data will be vital for saving lives, as it will help direct rescue services to the right spot rather than wasting time searching in the wrong places. It can even keep track of environmental conditions inside the mine and equipment performance parameters.
Though this system may sound easy to engineer, in today’s modern cell-phone-infested world and where even some digital photo-frames are wi-fi’d up, the conditions in a mine are different and current in-mine communications systems tend to work on a pager-phone set-up. This requires a miner to locate a hard-wired phone to get in touch when requested–very old-fashioned. L-3’s Mine Safety Director, Victor Young, describes the new system as bringing “mine safety into this century as far as communications and tracking” are concerned.