In 2006, an explosion caused the Sago mine in West Virginia to collapse, trapping 13 miners for nearly two days. Russell Breeding was watching the news when he heard the question asked: “Why can’t we find these miners?”
The answer, according to the expert on hand, was that the technology to do so was not available.
Yes it is. And I know how to do it, Russell thought. In that moment, InSet Systems was conceived.
“Within a matter of 20 seconds, I had the whole thing laid out in my head,” Russell says. “I knew it would work right out of the gate.”
Less than two months later, Russell and his partners, his cousin Jay Breeding and friend Mike Millam, had formed a company called InSet Systems and created a device about the size, color and heft of an old Sony Walkman Sport cassette player. The device has red LED lights that flash “EVACUATE” in the event of an emergency, a speaker and a microphone.
But the genius element is what’s inside the sturdy box: a miniature inertial sensor that can track movement and velocity without using any external references. It’s the same technology used for guided missiles and submarines, which is how Russell, an electronics technician on a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine during the Cold War, knew about the technology.
The sell would be that not only could the device save lives, but it could also make mines more efficient.
“People spend a lot of time hunting for stuff in mines,” Jay says. The typical mine may have a two-way party line telephone installed every few hundred feet, but there is usually no quick way to communicate.
The partners thought they had a winner and a timeline, but then the game changed.
In response to Sago, where 12 miners ultimately died, Congress passed the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act in June 2006. It required all coal mines to have tracking systems installed within three years.
“All of a sudden, it wasn’t just that we had this system,” Jay says. “But people were required to buy it.”
Obviously, that mandate was good news. But it also presented a huge challenge and incredible sense of urgency.
All of a sudden, the industry was flooded with competitors.
“A whole bunch of companies jumped in,” Jay says. Those companies used radio frequency identification tag (RFID) systems that they’d developed for use warehouses and trucking terminals.
Radio frequency systems work by placing readers every 500 to 1,000 feet. When workers pass them, the information is transmitted to a computer.
But there are significant limitations. In the event of a mining accident, RFID systems can only tell you which sensor a miner passed by last.
InSet’s system, by contrast, can locate a miner with an accuracy of about 10 feet.
The companies that use radio frequency technology have an enviable head start, though: Many of their systems, which use a much simpler technology than InSet, have already received government approval.
What this means for InSet is obvious: “We need to get this approved as fast as we can,” Jay says. The next step is testing the system in an actual mine. InSet hopes to do that at Century Mine in southern Ohio later this month.
By now, four years since MINER was passed, all mines should have tracking systems installed. They’ve been slow to comply, though. Only one in 10 underground mines nationwide have met the law’s requirements, according to The New York Times.
Certainly, part of that delay is due to the expense of installing a system. But there is likely another reason, according to Lee Poseidon, the JumpStart venture partner working with InSet.
“They have not really made purchasing decisions because they’re not confident that the right technology exists,” he says.
If InSet is approved this spring, it can begin chasing the $3 billion worldwide mining market. “We’ll get there,” Jay says, “but it’s hard to say when. I wouldn’t still be putting money in the company if I didn’t think we would get there.”
Underground mines are not the only market for InSet’s technology; it can be used in any environment where GPS does not work.
“There are enough mines and enough opportunities that I think InSet will certainly get its share,” Poseidon says. “But, ultimately, I think the underground construction market might be larger.”
InSet reached an agreement last year with a Hong Kong-based company, IContain, to market and distribute its system in Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Already, five projects using InSet technology have been quoted.
So far, InSet has raised $1.75 million through loans, grants and investors, including a $330,000 grant from the Ohio Coal Development office. Jay says they need to raise another $1.5 million.
Jay estimates the worldwide market for a technology like InSet’s at $30 billion. Tapping into just a small percentage of that potential market would make InSet incredibly successful financially, but Jay says he’s also pleased to be making a product that could change an industry.
This April, the worst mining disaster in four decades occurred, killing 29 men in a West Virginia mine owned by the Massey Energy Co. The mine is reported to have only partially installed a tracking system.
It was discovered fairly early that 25 miners had been killed, yet people believed it was possible four others were alive. At one point, rescuers banged on a drill pipe, hoping for a response.
InSet’s system would have allowed miners to communicate. And the next generation of InSet trackers will have sensors that can measure atmospheric levels of carbon monoxide, oxygen and methane as well as a sensor that will be able to determine if there is a pulse.
Even if a miner is unconscious, rescuers will know if they are alive.
“Based on what I know at this point, which is very preliminary, those 29 guys probably were deceased within minutes,” Jay says. “Our system probably would not have saved any lives, but knowing accurately where they were and whether or not they were still moving around, might have saved some anguish that the families went through for the next five days.”
And, in the future, it’s very possible that trapped miners will be rescued with the help of InSet trackers.
“It’s pretty exciting doing stuff that could save lives,” Jay says.