Feds OK Wireless Mine Safety Technology


"Technology to help coal mines meet safety standards has performed successful range tests from 1,550 feet below the surface."

Associated Press, Dylan Lovan

Federal regulators have approved a new wireless technology developed to help underground coal mines meet safety standards set after a deadly 2006 blast in West Virginia.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration said Wednesday it had approved Lockheed Martin's MagneLink system, the first device that can send signals through the earth, unlike traditional radio systems that depend on wires that can be damaged in a disaster. Lockheed said the technology uses a low-power battery that won't cause an underground spark.

"It's important that any kind of equipment that's supposed to operate when there's methane gas present, it doesn't put out enough energy to spark off an explosion," said Dave LeVan, the engineer who developed the system.

Coal operators had been slow to meet the communication standards outlined in safety laws passed after the Sago Mine explosion that killed 12 workers in January 2006. Mine safety officials said in April that nearly two-thirds of the nation's 529 underground mines had not yet fully installed new communications and tracking equipment.

Dave Chirdon, MSHA's new technology program manager, said the MagneLink system is the first underground technology approved by MSHA that can send signals through the ground, and is ideal for use in a disaster because of minimal equipment. Other radio-based systems need underground access points and wiring, he said.

"There's no infrastructure there to get destroyed in an accident," Chirdon said. "It does have a much greater likelihood of being available after an explosion."

LeVan said Lockheed has performed successful range tests in an underground mine from 1,550 feet below the surface. The system's underground unit has a low power setting that's about 100 times weaker than the electric igniter on a gas grill.

The trapped miners in the Sago explosion were vertically about 280 feet below the surface.

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