Did you know more than 40 percent of miners worldwide suffer from pneumoconiosis1, a deadly lung disease caused by inhalation of airborne particles and dust? Determined to protect miners and other workers from agonizing diseases and other dangers, the winner of the 2013 Intel® Global Challenge at UC Berkeley developed a system designed to bring industrial safety gear into the 21st century.
When Mauricio Contreras, a student at the University of Chile, entered a copper mine for the first time, he was taken aback by the harsh conditions. It was cold, dark, and because of the constant drilling, crushing and grinding, extremely loud. What’s more, a gritty dust hung in the air—dust that causes pneumoconiosis. Miners wore respirator masks, but Contreras observed that the workers removed them when they needed to communicate with each other.
At the time, Contreras and his colleagues, Jorge Morales and Erik Atenas, were working—with the aid of Chile’s national mining company, Codelco—on the Mobile Monitoring Station*, a set of "wearable," clothing-embedded sensors designed to collect data on miners’ exposure to noise or particulates, as well as their heart rates and other biomedical information.
The data could be transmitted—in real time—to managers in remote locations, who could use it to react more quickly in dangerous situations. Just months into the team’s project, a mining accident at San Jose Mine in Chile grabbed the attention of the world. For 69 days in 2010, 33 miners were trapped deep underground. For the first 16 days, no one knew if the men were alive or dead. On the 17th day a drill bit used by rescue crews emerged from the ground with a note that read, “We are well in the shelter, the 33 of us.” Contreras notes, “We could not have prevented the structural collapse, but our sensors, which are embedded in workers' clothing, could have kept a line of communication open and provided valuable health information to better aid the miners."
Contreras and his team took their Mobile Monitoring Station to the 2013 Intel Global Challenge, where they captured first place. Since then, SoluNova—a start-up the team launched—has been meeting with potential partners to further develop the biotech features of its system. Ultimately, SoluNova plans to revolutionize worker safety in mining and other dangerous industries by developing sophisticated “wearables” that track potentially life-saving data, as well as the cloud-based communication system that enables managers to keep their most valuable asset—the workers—safe.
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