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Kentucky, West Virginia Mines Try RFID Combined With Telecommunications

To improve safety, the mines are adopting or testing systems that use Axcess International's active RFID tags and readers, integrated with communications technologies from Tunnel Radio or Foundation Telecommunications Inc.
By Claire Swedberg
Sep 23, 2008West Virginia and Kentucky mines are using or testing wireless systems that employ telecommunications technology in conjunction with active RFID tags and readers to locate miners in underground tunnels. Although the mines in both states use Axcess International RFID Dot tags, they utilize different wireless platforms to relay RFID and telecommunications data.

An unnamed West Virginia mine, for instance, is using an RFID-based tracking system known as MineAx, provided by Tunnel Radio of America, in conjunction with Tunnel Radios' UltraComm wireless networking technology. Several other West Virginia mining companies will be installing the system later this year as well.

The MineAx system employs Axcess' active RFID tags and wireless readers to ensure real-time data regarding its miners' locations as they move around tunnels underground. The system will help West Virginia mines comply with the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006, which requires improved communications and emergency plans in the event of an underground mine accident.

With MineAx, when miners enter a shaft, they first pass through an Axcess reader portal. The portal reads the miners' Axcess Micro-Wireless ID active RFID tags, which can be placed in a pocket or attached to a hard hat. The portal emits a 126 kHz signal that awakens a dormant tag, which begins transmitting a signal in the 315 to 433 MHz ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) band. Typically, the portal contains two readers, one located in front of a mine's entrance, the other behind that entrance. The read sequence is then interpreted by Tunnel Radio software and provides data as to whether a particular miner is entering or leaving the mine. Elsewhere throughout the mine, additional RFID readers are deployed.

At the West Virginia site, the readers transmit data to the mine company's back-end system via the UltraComm wireless network, which includes a leaky feeder—a cable deployed throughout the mine that has "gaps" enabling it to function as a radio antenna and thereby emit and receive RF signals along its entire length. The mine utilizes the same UltraComm wireless network to support its two-way telecommunication system, also provided by Tunnel Radio. According to Mark Rose, Tunnel Radio's president and CEO, the two-way wireless communication system enables the mining company to contact underground miners via a Motorola radio each worker carries on a belt.

On the back-end system, Tunnel Radio software interprets that data and displays the employees' locations on a mine map generated from a computer-aided design (CAD) drawing of the mine. On that map, Rose says, a small hat icon represents each individual in the mine, color-coded according to that person's job function or experience. By placing the cursor over a hat, a manager can read the employee's name, as well as any other necessary data about that individual. If a miner has a problem, he can use the Motorola radio to place a call, and the manager or dispatcher can then utilize the RFID system to locate that worker on the display and communicate with him accordingly.

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