Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

SA may have been built on the back of its lucrative mining industry but every year‚ that same industry tragically claims the lives of those doing the hardest work for the lowest pay.

The Kusasalethu mine disaster near Carletonville in August is just one of many examples: five miners went missing and were then found dead‚ leaving their families emotionally devastated and without a reliable source of income.

Now‚ scientists at the University of the Witwatersrand have come up with a tiny device that could save the lives of many miners who put their own safety at risk everyday.

It is a matchbox-sized circuit board with a short aerial that can transmit the vital statistics and location of missing miners underground‚ according to a statement released by the university.

A few of the devices can be stationed around the underground as "nodes" attached to the miners‚ keeping track of their whereabouts in an environment in which traditional digital technology won’t function.

"Through this collaboration [with the University of Bremen in Germany]‚ we are designing‚ developing and testing a technology for tracking miners trapped inside a collapsed underground mine‚ using a scenario that assumes that the injured‚ missing miners are not able to send distress calls‚" Prof Fred Cawood‚ director of the Wits Mining Institute, said.

Idrees Zaman‚ a visiting researcher from Germany‚ whose doctorate focuses on wireless sensor networks in agriculture‚ said: "Wireless sensor networks‚ which combine through-the-rock‚ through-broken-earth and through-the-air communication‚ have the potential to re-establish the communication link even in a disaster scenario."

As a proof-of-concept‚ a collapse scenario and a network based on different nodes were created inside the mock mine constructed in the Wits school of mining engineering.

For it to work‚ each miner must wear a node‚ which is small enough to attach to the miner’s helmet‚ for example.

In a normal scenario‚ such a network enables tracking the movements of the miner. In the event of a portion of the mine collapsing and that some of the nodes stop working‚ the rest of the nodes could re-establish communication among themselves, the simulation showed.

"In the connected world‚ there are opportunities that weren’t here before. We have something special here that could be used in a mine of the future. It’s about finding a person [miner] before the window of opportunity to find them alive closes‚" Cawood said.