Mining for Answers

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2007-08-31 Print this article Print

Opinion: Would RFID have helped in the Utah mine tragedy?

The recent mine collapse in Huntington, Utah, seems like an unlikely topic of conversation between technology journalists. After all, before the tragedy, that mine was a brute-force operation in which men physically wrested coal from the bowels of the earth. There were no electronic niceties here.

But as it happened, eWEEK Editor Deb Donston and I were carrying on the typically staccato conversation that happens on instant messaging. We wondered: Would wireless technology have helped locate those doomed men? Could they have carried some means of communication that would have allowed them to reach rescuers?
For the most part, the answers were obvious. Wireless communication, as we know it, isnt going to reach through even a few feet of rock, and 1,500 feet of bedrock is simply impossible. Even ELF radio, which submarine forces around the world use to communicate underwater, wouldnt have worked. But, even if it could, would the long antennas required for these frequencies have survived a mine collapse?
And of course, theres the question of power. Even supposing the impossible, would wireless communications have the ability to keep running after two weeks? No, despite speculation thats appearing in the mainstream media, traditional wireless would not have been the answer. But that doesnt mean that there is not a wireless answer—just not the traditional one. Suppose instead that miner in Utah had had an RFID tag on his hard hat, on his belongings and on his survival gear? Then, when the exploratory holes were drilled, an RFID reader could have been lowered down, in addition to microphones and cameras. To read more about the the growing opportunities for RFID, click here. While an RFID reader isnt the same thing as two-way communications with trapped miners, it could have at least established their presence. A few seconds of readings would have determined whether any of the tags placed on the miners were within range. If none were, needless speculation would have been avoided—the families would have been spared, and the mine officials would have known at once to drill somewhere else. Even better, the RFID tags wouldnt have had to be visible to the camera, but simply within range of a radio signal, even if that meant reflecting around a corner or two. The tags could have revealed what items were being detected, and to whom they were assigned. That way, officials could have determined whether the tagged items belonged to one of the trapped men, or was simply something left behind by someone else. Likewise, if the tags were all detected in one place, at least the grim news could be delivered to the families, providing closure, and letting officials know whether there was any point in continuing to search. Of course, the miners didnt have RFID tags. I dont know that such a means of identification is in current use anywhere in the mining industry, although some companies are discussing its use in Canada and South Africa. In those places, most of the discussion seems aimed at tracking assets. But there is some discussion of personnel tracking by BlueBean and other companies, so the idea isnt totally foreign. RFID is still an emerging technology, and while its not particularly expensive, it does require some investment and training, so its no surprise that it hasnt seen wide acceptance yet. But at the very least, shouldnt tragic accidents like this provide the wake-up call that industries, including mining, need to ensure that they know where their employees are, and to be able to find them when something terrible happens? Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on mobile and wireless computing.
Wayne Rash Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.

He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.

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