It was a story that gripped the world’s attention for 69 days between August and October 2010. Following two collapses at the San Jose copper and gold mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert, 33 miners became trapped around 700 meters underground. The men – now famously known as “Los 33” – were presumed dead until 17 days after the initial collapse when rescuers retracted one of their probes and discovered a note attached to it. The note read: “Estamos bien en el refugio los 33.” Translation: “All 33 of us are well inside the shelter.” You know the rest. In a remarkable feat of engineering, 33 miners were eventually winched to safety amid jubilant scenes. And now, inspired by the extraordinary story of resilience and courage, a team of Chilean engineers from R&D firm, SoluNova, mining company, Coldeco, and the University of Chile have designed something aimed at helping prevent future disasters… A Solution to Chile’s Mining Misery It’s called the Mobile Monitoring Station – a jacket equipped with potentially lifesaving technology. And it can’t come soon enough for Chile… It boasts the unwanted tag of having the world’s highest fatality rate in the mining sector, with over 30 miners dying annually from accidents. But civil engineer, Alexander Duarte, says, “This jacket will resolve this problem, giving miners real-time information on both the environmental and physical conditions and transmitting them to mining [companies], so they can prevent accidents before they happen.” Specifically, the jacket is fitted with high-tech portable sensors that monitor both the conditions within the mine and the miner’s vital signs. It’s then sent wirelessly to officials at ground level. Like industrial designer, Jorge Morales, for example. He says, “This development is important for the mining industry because it will sound an alarm when there is critical exposure of significant occupational hazards, such as silicosis, hearing loss, or when there is a lot of exposure to dust, particles and a lot of noise.” Think of it as an early warning system for mines, similar to weather forecasting, or predicting natural disasters.
Top Intel Prize for the “Mobile Doctor” Even in this niche area, technology has advanced since the San Jose Mine collapse in 2010. During the rescue operation, the miners wore a special “bio-harness” belt called Zephyr. Originally designed for astronauts, the belt monitored the miners’ heart rates, breathing, oxygen consumption and body temperature. But the Mobile Monitoring Station takes a smarter, more proactive, preventative approach by employing the technology directly into a miner’s jacket. It’s essentially a “mobile doctor.” And there’s no doubt that the developers are filling a gap in the market here, given the lack of data on miners’ real-time conditions. Indeed, its lifesaving potential is why the innovation has gained such strong acclaim. It scooped the $50,000 top prize at the recent 2013 Intel (INTC) Global Challenge, beating off competition from 28 other teams that were whittled down from over 18,000 entries. Armed with that $50,000, the next step is to fine-tune the jacket’s technology, get it into production – and to miners and other industrial workers around the world. Ahead of the tape, Martin Denholm