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Pittsburgh Engineers Are Using The Earth As A Communication Tool To Find Trapped Miners

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

Volunteers who rescue trapped mineworkers will soon have access to technology developed in Pittsburgh using seismic vibrations as a means of communication.

It was one of the technological advancements the Mine Safety and Health Administration touted Thursday at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Research Laboratory in South Park. Mine safety executives were there to highlight developments made during the past eight years under the administration of Joe Main, assistant secretary for MSHA.

Max Clark, an electrical engineer with MSHA, has worked for the last two years to update technology used in mobile units to locate trapped miners.

It’s a last resort scenario, but miners are trained to pound on the ceiling of the mine every 15 minutes.

“That’s when we can use the earth as a means of communication,” Clark said.

Sensors placed around the mine detect vibrations from the pounding.

The technology has been used since the 1980s but has never successfully found a trapped person because other vibrations on site make it difficult to detect where the pounding is coming from. 

Clark and his team digitized the signals and differentiate between vibrations. He compared the technology to noise-cancelling headphones.

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
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Geophone sensors are displayed at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in South Park. The sensors are placed above a mine to detect vibrations of a trapped miner pounding on the ceiling of the mine.

“We have now the ability to distinguish a miner pounding underground, which is a very faint signal, while at the same time we have very loud destructive noise signals on the surface,” Clark said.

It’s been tested multiple times and he said it can now be used for future emergency situations.

According to MSHA data, there were 25 fatalities related to mine emergencies in 2016. That’s the lowest number the industry has ever reported, Main said. He attributes that to advancements in technology that have made the business safer. But he said the biggest remaining issue is communication in a rescue.

A new administration will take over following the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump on Jan. 20. Main said he has pushed during his appointment for video-equipped helmets for rescuers.

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
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A miner in an underground testing site at the National Institute for Occupational Safety in South Park demonstrates how miners are trained to pound on the ceiling when they are trapped and communication has been lost.

“So those in the command center making decisions can see in real time wheat the advancing team can see,” he said. “That is going to be a critical piece (in rescue). We’ve tested it out and know what kind of improvement it would be.”

Main also wants the next administration to invest in developing safer breathing for miners in emergency situations. Currently, miners have to remove the device to talk to other workers, putting them at risk of inhaling toxic smoke.

In 2010, several miners died in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in Raleigh County, W. Va. because they inhaled fumes while trying to communicate.

“One whiff of that bad air can kill you in an instant,” Main said. “I'm hopeful we'll get that (technology) soon.”

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.