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Ray of Hope for Mine Disasters

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Akron’s InSeT Systems develops way to track workers underground

Provided by the Akron Beacon Journal
Written by Paula Schleis

Russell Breeding’s “A-ha!” moment came while he was watching a Larry King interview after the West Virginia Sago mining disaster in 2006.

King had asked a mining expert why they couldn’t locate 13 men trapped underground, and was told the technology didn’t exist.

Sitting in his home in Virginia Beach, Va., Breeding sat up and talked back to his television set: “Yes, it does, and I know what it is.”

Today, Breeding and his team are a few months away from completing an inertial navigation system that they believe would have located those men instantly, instead of the two-day search that produced a single survivor.

Breeding recruited his cousin, Jay Breeding — an experienced businessman from Tuscarawas County — to be his chief operating officer.

Russell Breeding made himself chief technology officer, and tapped his friend and fellow U.S. Navy veteran Mike Millam to serve as chief engineer.

Last month, the trio moved their fledgling company, InSeT Systems, to Akron, taking up residence on the seventh floor of the Akron Global Business Accelerator.

They were obligated to move into the 21-county footprint of the venture development group JumpStart because of a $400,000 investment by that organization.

But Northeast Ohio is also a strategic location, surrounded by the Midwest’s prolific coal mining industry.

For Jay Breeding, the move also brought him full circle. He spent the first 20 years of his career in the rubber industry, starting with General Tire in Akron. The building InSeT calls home is a relic of those days — a renovated B.F. Goodrich tire factory.

Jay Breeding’s multifaceted career included years as a business adviser and “turnaround” expert, which is why cousin Russ turned to him to develop the business side of the enterprise.

That freed Russ, who spent a decade as an electronics technician navigator on nuclear submarines, to adapt old technology to a new purpose.

GPS, the global positioning satellite system that assigns every meter on the surface of the planet a unique address, can’t reach under the sea. Just as it can’t reach underground.

So submarines use inertial navigation, which uses a computer and motion sensors to continuously track the position, orientation and velocity of a target without the need for external references.

Inertial navigation is so exact, the system is used to guide missiles — like one used earlier this year to hit the fuel tank of a spy satellite 150 miles up.

Jay Breeding surmises that no one attempted to use the technology for coal mine communications because it’s a generally large system and prohibitively expensive.

But advances have enabled InSeT to reduce the size to a 10-ounce device that can be attached to each miner and his equipment.

A mine with about 100 miners could probably install a complete system for $500,000, Jay Breeding said, with half of that coming back as a tax credit. The rest would eventually pay for itself because instantly knowing where people and equipment are will save labor, he added.

It also helps that InSeT has a highly motivated market.

A few months after the Sago accident, federal legislators passed the Miner Act of 2006, giving coal mines three years to install wireless tracking and communication systems.

There are some 650 active underground coal mines in the United States. Several are trying to meet the federal requirements using radio-frequency identification tags (RFID), like the anti-theft devices retailers attach to merchandise.

A miner wears the tag and each time he passes a reader, a signal is sent out of the mine to note his location. But that information will not be updated until the miner passes another reader.

InSeT’s system, on the other hand, makes complicated calculations and sends several signals out of the mine every second using a radio relay.

Jay Breeding compared the difference to a system that knows someone has entered Progressive Field, to one that knows a person is standing on first base — and that’s a world of difference to rescuers making decisions about where to drill.

The radio relays are encased in boxes built to resist explosions, but even if an explosion destroys key relays or blocks radio transmissions, the above-ground computer would have already recorded the exact location of every tag at the moment of the accident.

InSeT’s next step is to develop computer software that will track multiple tags in three dimensions. A prototype tracking one tag proved flawless in government test mines and a working mine in Southeast Ohio, Jay Breeding said.

“We know the MSHA (Mining Safety and Health Administration) is very excited about our technology. They keep asking when are we going to be on the market with this because they know how superior it is,” he said.

InSeT is still seeking investors — about $750,000 worth — to finish the system, but the company is optimistic that it will be installing the devices later this year or early next year.

There are many applications for the technology that have yet to be explored, but InSeT’s focus is single minded.

“We want to make it possible for some miner that otherwise wouldn’t be able to go home to his family to go home,” Jay Breeding said.

As InSeT has worked to develop its system, another disaster in Utah took the lives of nine people at the Crandall Canyon Mine last year.

“We do not want to see another example like Utah, where they drilled seven holes and could never find them,” he said.

While six of those miners might have died in the original explosion, a tracking system like InSeT’s might have stopped three rescuers from a fatal attempt to locate the miners 10 days after the accident, Jay Breeding said.

“We might have had a pretty good idea not to send the other three in there,” he said, “and they wouldn’t have been lost.”