In the wake of two deadly US mine tragedies in West Virginia in three weeks, the Sago Mine in which 12 miners died and the Alma No. 1 mine in which two miners lost their lives, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin III promised mine safety reform - including electronic tracking of miners underground.
Sadly, the idea is not new. It was implemented in England in the late 1970s. It is time to catch up - in mines and other hazardous workplaces.
In the 1970s, the British Coal Board (BCB), after investigating and rejecting a number of possible solutions, selected active RFID tags to ensure miner safety - specifically to trigger a shut-down of automated lump crushers in the event an unconscious miner fell onto the conveyor belt.
Although not specifically designed to locate miners, the system could easily have been used for that purpose since the same type of RFID tag was being used to identify, locate and track the underground rail cars. Miners' tags were read as they entered and left the mine.
In both recent US mine accidents, precious time was lost trying to locate the missing men. A system - such as RFID tags - that could track their location just before the accident might have made a difference.
The problem is not just in locating employees trapped in a mine or ruined building - it is also a matter of knowing exactly who is missing.
The issue is not restricted only to the mining industry. Many workplaces - such as oil and chemical refineries and offshore drilling platforms - are inherently dangerous places to work. Accidents happen. What is important is how quickly and efficiently a response can be mounted when an accident does occur.
In the BCB decision in the 1970s, active tags were selected because the greater signal strength of active tags meant that they were still effective despite tramp iron in the coal and all the metal equipment in the mine. (Passive tags, other than SAW technology, were not very common at the time.) In fact, the greatest obstacle to overcome was shielding the reader on the coal crusher so that it was not inadvertently triggered by miners walking past (rather than on the conveyor belt itself).
Even with today's advanced passive RFID technology, active tags may still be the best option.
One option would be to place readers at strategic points and track employees entering or leaving a location. The additional signal strength (range) of active tags would reduce the number of read points required.
The other option - and perhaps the more desirable one - would be to use a real time locating system (RTLS) or local locating system (LLS). These systems use active tags that periodically broadcast their ID number. These signals are received by two (or more) reading points and the tag's precise location can be calculated by the time differential between the different read points' receipt of the signal.
In either scenario, it would be possible to quickly and efficiently identify missing employees in the event of a natural disaster or industrial accident. While there is certainly a cost associated with implementing RFID technology, the price is a small one compared to the value of a single life.
Reprinted from 26 January 2006 'RFID Connections' - Copyright (c) 2006 AIM, Inc. - used with permission. http://www.aimglobal.org/services/newsletters.asp
Enabling assets to communicate
Wavetrend Technologies is a provider of ultra long range (ULR) active radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. In collaboration with its global network of strategic and accredited channel partners, which include IBM, Motorola, Red Prairie and Symbol, the company provides hardware and software solutions for the RFID market.
ULR active RFID tags contain their own power source, enabling realtime asset monitoring and tracking over distances of less than 1 m to greater than 250 m. Wavetrend's tags are robust and have an internal battery life of up to eight years. The addition of sensors to detect, for example, vibration or changes in temperature, enables assets to communicate their whereabouts and condition using secure transmission protocols for maximum security.
Market forecasts anticipate that the RFID market will grow dramatically over the next 10 years. Through its extensive domain knowledge and proven ability to meet the requirements of customers and channel partners alike, Wavetrend is well placed to lead the growth of this market.
Wavetrend Technologies' R&D and manufacturing operations are based in South Africa with its corporate operations in Richmond, UK. Sales operations and business units are in SA, the UK and in the USA and Wavetrend has an accredited channel network of around 70 key solution providers and technology partners around the world.
© Technews Publishing (Pty) Ltd. | All Rights Reserved.