for National Geographic News
Robots and virtual reality are being touted as 21st-century coal-mine canaries in the wake of this month's U.S. mining deaths.
In the 19th century, underground coal miners carried canaries down into the shafts as their first line of defense against poisonous gases. If the birds keeled over, the miners evacuated.
But the practice wasn't failsafe. Thousands of miners died each year.
Electronic gas sensors and portable oxygen supplies have long since replaced the canaries, but 22 U.S. coal miners still died on the job in 2005. Fourteen died this month alone. And in China that figure is in the thousands.
Can cutting edge technologies, from robotics to virtual reality training equipment, save more lives?
Several experts believe the answer is yes. They hope that the two disasters this month in Sago and Melville, West Virginia (state profile and map), spur mines to adopt high-tech safety technology.
"I think we are there now, to the point where [the momentum for adopting new safeguards] will not die out," said Larry Grayson, a professor of mining engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla.
"We'll get the problem taken care of this time."
On Monday the National Mining Association, an industry trade group, appointed Grayson the director of a commission to study how new technologies, procedures, and training can improve safety in underground mines.
William "Red" Whittaker, a robotics professor at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said he hopes the current outcry will lead to further use of robots.
"I know of no other single technology that holds as much promise to transform the capacity for mine response and rescue," Whittaker said.
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