A small device, with an aerial the size of an adult’s forefinger and a wafer-thin circuit board the width and length of a matchbox, could crack open the problem of finding mine workers lost in underground rockfalls while keeping track of their vital signs, and herald a great leap in robotic mining and communications. The unassuming device — which its inventor, Idrees Zaman, a visiting researcher from Germany’s Bremen University, says could be made much smaller and cheaper — will easily fit inside a mine worker’s helmet. It could provide communication with similar nodes — ideally fitted to long bolts drilled into the ceiling to keep rock from shearing off and falling — placed along tunnel roofs or walls. The battery-powered device could be made a lot smaller by drawing power off the battery pack used for cap lamps every mine worker has underground. Early cost estimates put the devices at less than R1,000 each, a fraction of the cost of low-frequency or high-frequency devices used for...

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