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1/24/2006
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Robotics, Communications Tapped For Safer Mining

While a newly formed commission on mine safety focuses on radio frequency identification and other technologies, other experts are looking to robotics, mine mapping, and communications.

Technology experts at the Wheeling Jesuit University's National Technology Transfer Center are working to identify the most effective means to improve miners' safety in West Virginia, while their counterparts do the same at the national level.

The West Virginia legislature sped through approval of a mine safety package introduced Monday by Gov. Joe Manchin. The governor's rules, which will take effect next month, require the use of new technology to track miners' movements. The legislation bars companies from firing or disciplining employees based on information gleaned from the devices.

While a newly formed commission on mine safety focuses on radio frequency identification and other technologies, experts at the technology transfer center and the Mid Atlantic Research and Innovation Center are focusing on robotics, mine mapping and communications.

They are also trying to design lighter, faster and smaller self contained self-rescue units. Those units would have more oxygen capacity than the current one-hour reserve, NTTC Vice President of Public Affairs Steve Infanti said during an interview Tuesday.

The new technology for the rescue units will be geared toward meeting requirements in the new law.

In West Virginia -- where 12 miners died in the Sago Mine about two weeks ago and another two died at the Aracoma Mine last week -- companies will be fined up to $100,000 if they don't notify emergency responders within 15 minutes of an accident.

The fines and the technology are aimed at combating what critics see as the weakest part of rescue attempts -- miners' inability to communicate with rescue teams, rescue teams inability to locate miners and the 11 hours it took for rescue efforts to get underway at Sago.

Larry Grayson, a mining expert studying technologies to recommend for federal requirements, said in an interview Monday that technologies that work in some strata may not work in others. That, he said, is part of the challenge of making it all work.

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