Follow the underground Firefly

MineARC's refuge chamber provides a 'go to' area in emergencies.

MineARC Systems and IoT Automation have partnered to unveil the Firefly Smart Lighting System, using an untapped resource in underground mine safety. Andy Ewe writes.

Accurate and fast communication to underground miners is of the essence in emergency situations.

Traditionally, stench gas and radio communication have been the main solutions for communicating danger to underground miners.

Even though these traditional communication systems have their benefits, shortcomings still exist, requiring a complementary system to boost safety.

The immediate safety situation of the mine was not being communicated to underground personnel in real time, IoT Automation managing director Robin Paine tells Safe to Work.

Lighting is an untapped safety resource in situations to improve worker safety, leading to a real-time system that can use illumination to communicate safety situations in mines.

IoT Automation has partnered with MineARC Systems to commercialise the patented Firefly Smart Lighting System, which uses intelligent illumination to communicate critical information to the underground workforce.

Firefly provides a robust and reliable solution for visual navigation and alerts in the underground mining environment.

“Firefly smart lighting helps people navigate their way during an emergency,” Paine says.

“In an emergency event, it will provide guidance lighting to a chamber or safe zone. Lights will cascade along the tunnel to the nearest refuge chamber or alternatively to a primary or secondary escape way, providing a ‘follow-me’ visual lighting effect.”

Firefly complements MineARC’s existing range of industry-leading refuge chambers, which provide a safe and secure ‘go-to’ area for underground personnel to gather and await extraction when evacuation is not safe or practical.

The Firefly lighting system also supplements MineARC’s GuardIAN Intelligence Network, an integrated suite of advanced tech products, including real-time chamber diagnostics, site-wide gas detection and tracking – all of which can be monitored from the surface.

“We now have a product range that encompasses the major human senses in alerting a worker to an emergency event. You have stench gas for smell, radio and communications through GuardIAN for sound and now we have visual,” MineARC chief innovation officer Brent Pearce says.

Due to the often-harsh nature of underground mines, lighting solutions need to be fit for purpose. This is especially true of emergency solutions.

“There wasn’t anything existing on the market that was appropriate as far as underground mine lighting and emergency lighting was concerned,” Paine says.

“We looked at new ways of getting workers back to refuge chambers in emergencies. We always have to think about things in the worst circumstances, not a perfect environment.”

According to Paine, most other systems are not built for underground mining, while the Firefly is engineered specifically for the industry.

“Every design choice – from the materials selected for the housing, connectors, optics and LED components, through to the design of the electronic circuits – were all made with the objective of withstanding the underground mining environment,” Paine says.

“It’s important because there are extremes of temperature, blasted fly rock and percussion waves, twisting and heaving ground and of course big mobile machines that smack into the walls and roofs of drifts.”

The product has universal applications in industrial environments across the world, including hard rock mining, coal mining (non-IS) and tunnelling construction operations.

Firefly also has the inbuilt flexibility that miners need to deploy it quickly and make it easy to use and support. 

“All the different layers of dangers in a mine, we want to make sure that it works for the escape strategies and for the mine operations,” Pearce says.

“There’s no point having a lighting system deployed when no one can see it, same goes for gas detection measurements.”

MineARC works closely with mining companies individually to provide tailored solutions from their mix of products.

“Every client is going to require something different. They have varying problems and needs when it comes to their site,” MineARC marketing manager Lesley Emery says.

“Our products have always been about safety and we’re not compromising on that.”

Paine’s passion to help mine workers stay safe stems from the deep personal ties he has with the mining industry.

He says his grandparents were underground miners, while his uncle owns a drilling company.

“When I finished school, I wanted to go and work for those companies, but they said go away, get smart and come  back and help the industry,” Paine says. 

“We are optimistic that the Firefly technology can become another industry best practice. Hopefully, it is heavily adopted by our industry and adds another layer of safety for our underground brothers.

“The ultimate goal is to be proud and say we helped the industry be that little bit safer – to help workers do their jobs and get home.

This article also appears in the Oct–Dec edition of Safe to Work.