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We don’t often think of the canary as a piece of technology. But in a sense, what was the iconic “canary in a coal mine” if not an environmental hazard detection device? Well into the 1980s, according to some sources, coal miners took canaries into mines to warn them if carbon monoxide or methane gases were prevalent. The canary, having a sensitive respiratory system, would die in the presence of such gases, and if the miners noted an end to the birdsong, that meant it was time to high-tail it to the surface.

In our technological (not to mention slightly more humane) age, we can find a better “device” to improve mining safety, can’t we? We can, reports The Engineer. Nottingham University in the UK has teamed up with a company called Tioga, and together they’ve built a small penny-sized sensor that can be integrated into miner’s helmets. Unlike the canary, the Nottingham/Tioga device doesn’t monitor atmospheric gases (at least, not in the current iteration); rather, it monitors the heart rate and respiration of the miners themselves.

The technology is not unlike those finger clips used in hospitals and doctors’ offices to measure heart rate, Tioga told The Engineer. Though you may have supposed those devices measured the pressure of your pulse against the sensor, in fact those finger clips are optical systems. “In an optical heart-rate pulse sensor, light is shot into a finger tip or ear lobe. The light either bounces back to a light sensor, or gets absorbed by blood cells,” explain the folks behind this Kickstarter Project for an “Open Source Heart-rate Sensor” that allows a person’s heart rate to factor in art projects, among other things. The Nottingham/Tioga sensor is slightly different in that it measures reflected light, rather than light that goes through your skin.

Mining, of course, is tough work, whether in the UK or elsewhere. (For a stark, vivid, and strangely lyrical representation of mining in a different era, see Robert Frank’s postwar photography of Welsh miners.) Accidents are not just a thing of the past; the Gelision Colliery accident in Wales killed four miners last year. The hope is that such technology could reduce or mitigate such accidents. If a problem arises in a mine, an alert would travel via Wi-Fi to a monitoring station above ground. Though the Nottingham/Tioga device is limited to biometric data for now, they’re working on a version that also measures environmental factors like gas and humidity.

The new device is not without its competitors. A company called Draxin, for instance, has created a device that measures body data together with environmental data. Competition is good here. Technology can, and should, improve mine safety.

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