Mining is a profession fraught with danger. Even if you're not one of the rare miners who gets trapped thousands of feet underground, you still have to deal with silicosis--a kind of lung disease often found in miners that's caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust. Symptoms include cough, fever, and a bluish tint to the skin.
The winning team of this year's Intel Global Challenge, a business plan competition that asks students to take on the world's biggest issues through the use of technology, has come up with a way to possibly avoid the silicosis plague. Developed by a team of students from Chile, the Mobile Monitoring Station is a sensor-filled jacket that keeps track of vital signs like heart rate along with levels of particulate matter, which can contribute to lung disease.
The station lets workers monitor themselves via a smartphone app, while safety managers can access all of the workers' data on a website. If a worker's signals go above certain thresholds--perhaps by inhaling more particulate matter over a long period of time than is safe--alerts will go off. The jacket will vibrate and the system will send emails to safety managers.
"They know the status of people in the mine or industrial site, so they can devise better policy through statistical analysis," explains Mauricio Contreras, a member of the winning team. And if a worker is dealing with extremely high levels of particulate matter, safety managers will know to pull him out immediately.
Contreras came up with the idea for the Mobile Monitoring Station after talking to his mentor at the University of Chile, who has consulted with local mine companies for a decade. When Contreras first started thinking about the idea, he believed the market wasn't ready for it. But he believes that's starting to change.
The Chile team will spend its $50,000 prize on hardware tools for rapid prototyping. The sensors required to create the jacket don't quite exist yet--they're too bulky and expensive. "The key challenge now is to form a robust network of partners and manufacturers that will build the key sensors that we need," says Contreras. "The sensors are not available in the market, but the design could exist. It's not far-fetched."
In 2014, Contreras and his team would like to run a pilot with up to 100 miners and hope to have a product ready for the market by 2015.