Friday, September 14, 2007

Small Ontario company poised to cut danger for miners with wireless system

Small Ontario company poised to cut danger for miners with wireless system
The Canadian Press - WASHINGTON
September 13, 2007

WASHINGTON (CP) — It's no wonder Canadian Steve Barrett felt sick when he heard about the cave-ins last month at Utah's Crandall Canyon Mine.
Days before, Barrett, who heads a Burlington, Ontario company that makes wireless communications systems, made a presentation to the owners during a marathon of meetings with every major coal-mining company in the United States.
His pitch? An underground tracking network he invented with partner Andy Stein to guide miners to safety and help those above ground locate people who are trapped.
At Crandall Canyon, three rescuers died in August trying to find six trapped miners. It was a devastating rescue effort that involved drilling six bore holes from above over several days.
It would have taken weeks to install the new wireless system even if Crandall's owners, Murray Energy Corp., had the time to make a decision on the technology.
But could it have saved anyone?
Hard to tell, says Barrett, president of ActiveControl Technology Inc., but the location of the miners could have been narrowed down much more quickly to a specific area.
That's because the system, which outfits miners with phones so they can talk to people above or send them text messages, also provides each worker with little grey tracking devices that pinpoint precise locations via the wireless network.
"We would have been able to tell them where to bore the first hole within 35 feet," or about 10 metres, says Stein.
"The rescue efforts could have been more directed. If we had saved anybody, it would have been the safety workers."
The small Ontario company has been making wireless security and access control systems for use in buildings for 15 years.
After the Sago mine disaster in January 2006, one of Barrett's chief investors who does a lot of business with the American mining industry, Roger Rosmus in Toronto, asked if Barrett and Stein could devise something to track miners.
The early-morning explosion at Sago in West Virginia immediately killed one man. A dozen others survived the blast but all but one eventually succumbed to carbon monoxide asphyxiation while waiting 41 hours for help to arrive.
The miners couldn't communicate with the surface. And they mistakenly turned back just 45 metres from where the air quality started to improve.
"We didn't know anything about coal mining at the time," says Barrett. "It broke our hearts. We were confident that we could have built something that could have helped."
The company, working with Sago owners International Coal Group, developed a demonstration system by last August at the Viper Mine near Springfield, Illinois. The product was approved this summer by West Virginia mining officials for use in its underground operations.
Approval from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration is pending.
ActiveControl has applied for a patent on its wireless mesh network, which uses directional antennas to shoot signals down a mine's tunnels. The network allows the Wi-Fi telephones to communicate with one another and supports the radio frequency identification (RFID) technology that tracks and locates miners.
The company is hoping to take advantage of new state safety regulations that require two-way voice communication and tracking in mines by July 2008.
Similar federal rules kick in the following year.
With 660 coal mines in the United States, many of them in West Virginia, and a total 1,100 underground mines across the country, the company is looking at a market of US$330 million and a worldwide market of five times that amount.
Canada only has a couple of coal mines and different safety rules.
The company's system costs between US$200,000 and $1 million to install depending on the size of the mine. It is based on wireless technology.
Other products in the United States, said Barrett, rely on some cable and are more easily compromised by roof falls, fires and explosions. Or they use old walkie-talkie technology that relies on a central antenna more susceptible to failure.
The Canadian version has battery backup that kicks in when electrical power is cut to a mine during an emergency, said Barrett, and it's cheaper to install and much easier to maintain.
The money-making potential is undeniable for a system that Resource World magazine said in May is positioned to "revolutionize communications in underground mining as well as various other mining operations."
But it's the chance to save lives in a dangerous industry that's driving Barrett, who's logged countless hours on the road away from home.
"It's the inspiration for our company. It's the right thing to be doing. Every once in a while we stop and think, this is all for the greater good."
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