Mine Safety

CIT and two Virginia businesses, Innovative Wireless Technologies (IWT) of Forest, and PBE of Tazewell, developed continuous, remote atmospheric monitoring systems to enhance the safety of miners and, in the event of an incident, emergency personnel. The teams received funding for two related and sequential projects, described below.

Mine Safety I

In August, 2009, CIT began work on this two-year project to develop an intrinsically safe carbon monoxide (CO) sensor and wireless communication system to permit continuous, remote sensing of dangerous conditions induced by high CO levels. This technology contributes to fire prevention and suppression systems, thus enhancing the overall safety of underground miners and rescue personnel. The project was advanced by Senator Mark Warner and former Senators John Warner and Jim Webb, and it received funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).

The sensors and wireless communication devices were designed to be suitable for battery- or line-powered operation in mines. The choice of CO for the remote detection and wireless monitoring system originates in the dual significance of CO as an indicator of toxic atmosphere and possibly an impending fire hazard. CO is produced in detectable concentrations by burning coal or natural gas, overheating conveyor components, as well as by normal activities such as blasting, operation of internal combustion engines, and welding.

When the shutdown of main power is mandated under safety rules by a detected potential hazard or catastrophic emergency, the persistence of a battery back-up powered wireless sensor network could enable remote identification by the monitoring and control system of the locations, distribution of concentrations, and cause of elevated CO. This information could become the basis of focused rescue, fire suppression, and/or other corrective responses.

A system demonstration was held in June, 2010 at the CIT Headquarters building in Herndon, Virginia. Representatives from Capitol Hill, federal agencies, and the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) attended to learn how the system operates using electrical power and – representing the condition in an underground mine after an incident – how the system continues to function by virtue of its intrinsically safe design (battery back-up) when power is shut off.

Following a successful completion of evaluation and testing by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), IWT and PBE are authorized to produce and distribute the new products – an intrinsically safe sensor mesh interface (SMI) and CO sensor, respectively, for use in mines.

Mine Safety II

The goal of the Mine Safety II project, which concluded in fall 2013, was to enhance the overall safety of underground miners and rescue personnel by adapting methane and oxygen sensors and wireless communication systems to permit continuous, remote sensing of dangerous conditions induced by high and/or low gas levels. Specifically, the team's intent was to provide continuous and remote methane and oxygen monitoring. Methane monitoring permits detection of early signs of poor ventilation or potential methane leaks entering into the ventilation system. Monitoring the oxygen levels continuously at the same time provides insight into the overall atmospheric gas composition for early detection of explosive conditions consisting of high levels of methane, along with low levels of oxygen. Communication through a low-throughput mesh network provides a lower cost communication alternative for mines that do not have an installed mesh network that accommodates voice and data transmissions. Together, CIT, IWT, and PBE developed additional sensor modalities and a low-throughput wireless mesh network over which atmospheric monitoring data, including that of methane and oxygen levels, can be communicated.

This project was advanced through Congress by Senator Mark Warner and former Senator Jim Webb, with funding from the SBA.