Coal Mining: Could Robots Do Humans' Dirty Work?

Carol Raulston, senior vice president of communications for the National Mining Association, said that while the industry is introducing more and more computerized mechanisms that improve safety, the next steps likely involve both man and machine inside the mine.

"It's the same challenge we have in constantly communicating with miners that are deeply underground. You just can't do it with wireless technology because of the amount of rock that is between the control booth above ground and the equipment underground," she said.

She said there's currently no way to communicate between the mine and the surface wirelessly and other options aren't yet reliable enough to facilitate remote-controlled mining.

But Raulston said the industry has adopted other technologies to improve mine safety.

For example, she said, sensors attached to mining equipment monitor air quality for hazardous levels of methane, carbon monoxide and coal dust.

Mines Are Adopting Safety Technology, But in Early Stages

United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith said mines also use tracking equipment, which helps miners communicate with each other and potentially locates miners after accidents.

Since GPS technology doesn't work underground, some tracking systems rely on RFID (radio frequency identification) tags that transmit and receive messages to RFID-enabled devices in the vicinity.

But the adoption of advanced technology has been slow, he said.

According to a recent Associated Press report, the mining industry has yet to meet a 2006 congressional mandate to upgrade the country's underground mines with high-tech communications and tracking equipment.

Out of 491 mines expected to install the equipment, Mine Safety and Health Administration records show 34 mines that have systems that meet the requirements. The upgrades were mandated after a January 2006 methane explosion fatally trapped 12 West Virginia miners.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration did not immediately respond to requests for comment from ABCNews.com.

"There have been improvements in technology but those improvements are in the early stages," Smith said, adding that the industry is slowly adopting technology as it proves itself reliable. "We're not at the point where we can have complete confidence in that technology."

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