Can you hear me now? CSU research could help miners stay safe


The Edgar educational mine, where researchers will test a cyber-physical wireless system for improving communications. Credit: Colorado School of Mines

There are more than 13,000 active mines in the United States. To keep miners connected and safe underground, most companies employ cable-based or limited-wireless communications solutions that require expensive, custom-designed equipment. During disasters such as cave-ins, fires and floods, cables can bend, systems can break, and miners suffer the consequences.

A newly funded project led by Colorado State University engineers is aimed at providing miners a low-cost, high-fidelity communication system that bypasses GPS, wireless, cellular and other signals we take for granted above ground. The wireless cyber-physical framework for miners would involve standard smartphones and low-cost wireless sensing. It would eliminate the need for expensive handheld and communication equipment, and give miners an extra edge of safety, whether for day-to-day communication or during an emergency.

NSF support

The National Science Foundation has awarded a three-year, $750,000 grant to a team led by Sudeep Pasricha, associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a CSU Monfort Professor. About $412,500 will go to the CSU researchers, including co-principal investigator Branislav Notaros, professor in the same department and a University Distinguished Teaching Scholar. Pasricha and Notaros share in the grant with Associate Professor Qi Han at Colorado School of Mines.

The grant allows the team to continue developing a cyber-physical wireless network that Pasricha and former students first developed, publishing a proof of concept in 2015. They called their localization system LearnLoc, and tested it in CSU buildings. Bringing the network to a mining environment presents new challenges, Pasricha said: Devoid of any normal wireless communication signals, mining tunnels are unforgiving and unpredictable, twisting many miles underground.

“It is much easier to localize a person in a building than in a very harsh, underground environment,” Pasricha said.

Field testing

The researchers will field-test their system in Colorado School of Mines’ Edgar Mine, used for research and education. They also will partner with Hecla Mining in Idaho, which has expressed interest in the proposed technology.

While useful for mining, the technology could lead to a host of other applications in the realm of next-generation smart workplaces and various “Internet of Things” applications. It could also be used in the aftermath of disasters for survivor rescue efforts.