Small sensor device could increase safety of miners

The safety of miners could be increased with a penny-sized device that is being developed in the East Midlands.

Nottingham University and Derby-based Tioga have developed a sensor that can be integrated into a miner’s helmets to enable people above ground to monitor their heart rate and respiration.

Recent incidents — such as the Gelision Colliery accident in Wales last year that saw four miners killed — have demonstrated the need to be able to assess the health and location of miners trapped underground. Although some mines now use radio-frequency identification (RFID) systems, many still employ the tally system, using tokens to check whether miners have returned from their shift.

Warwick Adams, Tioga’s managing director, told The Engineer that the technology they have developed is similar to the finger clips used in hospitals to measure a patient’s heart rate, which study how light interacts with blood at the fingertips.

‘This is a similar kind of thing, but rather than light going through and out of your skin we reflect it so the light goes in and then we watch it bounce off,’ said Adams.

The technology behind the MiMoS (Mining Industry Mobile Sensor) was first used in 2004 to monitor the heart rate of newborn babies without the need for a stethoscope.

‘Their skin is so soft and susceptible to damage that you can’t put electrodes on them,’ explained Adams. A stethoscope is also impractical as it gets in the way of treatment and it’s hard for a doctor to count very high heart rates. The technology, known as Heart Light, was first tested at Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham for this purpose and continues to be used there today.

Adams began conversations with Nottingham University’s Prof Barrie Hayes-Gill about deploying the technology in mines soon after it was first seen in hospitals, when he realised there are no current systems in place to monitor the health of miners. The two developed the technology with the help of £120,000 in funding provided by the Technology Strategy Board and the EPSRC.

Adams explained that, if there is a problem in the mine, an alert is sent via Wi-Fi to a monitoring station at the surface. So far, the device has been successfully tested at local mines and is being further developed so that it is capable of measuring gas and humidity levels.

While mining in the UK is still a sizeable industry, there is an even larger number of mines around the world owned by UK companies.

‘Our hope is that all UK companies will be required to have it used wherever they have miners throughout the world,’ said Adams.

The cost of the device has not yet been decided, but the company claims it has been in talks with Rio Tinto and Inspectra.

‘This is an interesting new advance of technology that should have applications not only in the mining industry but in other challenging environments,’ said Graham Woodrow, director of the Materials, Minerals and Mining Institute.