• An information control centre at work, monitoring miner safety (CUMT)

Using radio tags to improve mine safety

Published as part of Australia and China Science and Technology Week at the Shanghai World Expo 2010.

Seven miners die every day on average in China, so it is no surprise that scientists from China University of Mining and Technology (CUMT) and Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University are working at improving mining safety through better monitoring of personnel and of mining activities underground.

“Mining safety is a key issue in China where the death toll per million tonnes of coal production is 50 times higher than in Australia,” says RMIT’s Professor Kefei Zhang who leads the study.

“We are trying to improve the monitoring systems so that we can pinpoint a miner’s position at any time—before, during and after any mining disasters.”

Current monitoring systems rely on closed-circuit TV cameras positioned around the mine but, as Professor Zhang says, they are of little use when the power supply is cut or the camera’s view is obstructed by falling debris. They are also expensive and difficult to automate.

Unlike satellite positioning systems such as GPS which only work above ground, the radio frequency identification (RFID) system doesn’t require physical contact or line of sight to collect data. Its signals are strong enough to penetrate through walls making them ideal for tracking systems in mines, especially when trying to locate miners after a disaster.

“CUMT have strong connections with the Chinese mining industry. This allowed us to visit mines and see the monitoring systems first hand. Our Chinese partners also have a detailed knowledge of the geographic information systems that are required to integrate the geospatial data with data from other sensors like gas sensors and radio communication systems,” says Professor Zhang.