WHILE we often marvel at how the IT revolution is changing our culture, trade, commerce, banking and entertainment, and bask in gadgetry — mobile phones, laptops, LEDs, WiFi etc — we seldom wonder why the benefits of low-cost circuitry is not reaching areas where it is needed the most ie hazardous workplaces.
In the context of business and trade in our country, the purpose of IT is usually efficient management and productivity enhancement — and hardly the health and safety of workers. So it came as a pleasant surprise to learn about a young IT graduate’s resolve to make mining safer through designing and producing ‘smart helmets’ based on cost-effective ZigBee wireless technology.
Though the global application of IT for miners’ health and safety is on the increase around the world, I have as yet to come across a report on the use of sophisticated tools and improved safety procedures in our mining sector. Mining remains as dangerous as ever. The government itself conceded in the 2016 Economic Survey that “this is due to application of outdated management techniques, inadequate capital and antique technical know-how”. Just recently, on May 24, four workers lost their lives in a mine in the Sor Range coalfield in Balochistan. The next day, three miners died from the effects of methane gas in a coal mine in Lahkra, Sindh. There is no documentation of near-miss accidents or accidents that cause injuries.
New ventures such as ‘smart helmets’ need to be promoted.
Ali Gul, a graduate of the Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences, Quetta, recently won the first runner-up prize at a competition of final-year projects held under the National Grassroots ICT Research Initiative, created by the IT ministry’s National ICT R&D Fund. He has designed a helmet for miners that detects, monitors and provides early-warning data on poisonous gases, temperature, humidity, location and miners’ health through an alarm system. Based on ZigBee, a low-cost wireless area network protocol used for controlling and monitoring applications, the helmet, which serves as a mobile node, transmits the data to the base station that helps in evacuation in case of hazardous conditions inside the mine. Ali Gul has taken care that the helmets can be easily used by illiterate workers as well.
Ali Gul, who grew up in Sanjawi, Ziarat district, amidst fruit orchards, had always wanted to become an engineer. Sanjawi is close to the Dukki coalfield, notorious for fatal accidents. Hence, he was always aware of the dismal conditions in coal mines and the risk that workers take when they descend underground, carrying with them a set of primitive tools.
A personal incident fuelled the idea of helping coal miners. Ali Gul’s elder brother, a coal miner then, met with an accident in 2011 inside the mine. He was lucky to get immediate help and was saved. In 2012, Ali Gul enrolled in the computer engineering department at Balochistan University and in his final year came up with the idea of designing a smart helmet based on ZigBee.
ZigBee technology is recent and evolving. Conceived in 1998, standardised in 2003, revised in 2006, the ZigBee 3.0 standard was released in 2016 with an enhanced tool box for product designers. ZigBee-based smart helmets have been produced in different countries. According to Ali Gul, in Pakistan, this is the first time that smart helmets will be introduced. After a public display of the project, he got his first order for 20 helmets from a local coal mine company. With the cash prize he had won, he purchased the components and made and sold 20 units. He is determined to pursue production and is waiting for further orders.
Under the initiative, since 2011, 2,067 proposals have received grants. But how many prototypes have seen the light of the day in the form of products that can be marketed? Though any contestant can approach the fund for product development and commercialisation, “none of the winning contestants has of yet filed an application with us”, says a spokesman for the National ICT R&D Fund which is now setting up national incubator centres to promote start-ups in Peshawar, Lahore and Karachi.
The initiative is doing a good job but needs to do more to benefit youth from small towns and distant areas. Their prototypes need to be showcased and linked up with industrial buyers. They should be enabled to reach out to incubators centres for mentorship, networking opportunities and access to investors. The initiative can also form a network of contestants to come together and exchange experiences. Grassroots talent, like Ali Gul, must be facilitated to realise their dream.
The writer is a researcher in the development sector.
Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2017