May 19, 2008 The Pump Handle 2Comment

A fair number of people have “Ah-ha!” moments, but how many actually take those nuggets of brilliance and pursue them? 

One man –an inventor of sorts who I came to know because of the Sago disaster—has done just that.  While watching the rescue efforts at the WV Sago mine unfold on television in early January 2006, this man used his knowledge as a former Navy submariner to design and develop a tracking system for underground miners.  His “Ah-ha!” moment and now application was recognized this month by Popular Science magazine as one of the top-ten inventions for 2008! (PopSci article here)

Announcing the award, the magazine editors note:

“The world needs help…but the solutions may well end up coming from the garages and basements next door.  As the winners of PopSci’s 2nd annual Invention Awards demonstrate, invention–even world changing invention–can happen anywhere there’s an idea and an endless drive to see that idea made real.”

Congratulations to Russell and Jay Breeding and Mike Millam of InSEeT System, who have shown (not just talked about) their commitment to workers’ health and safety. 

An article by Paula Schleis in the Akron Beacon-Journal called Ray of Hope for Mine Disasters describes Russell Breeding’s “Ah-Ha!” moment which occurred while he watch CNN’s Larry King.

“King had asked a mining expert why they couldn’t locate 13 men trapped underground [at Sago], and was told the technology didn’t exist.  Sitting in his home in Virginia Beach, Va., Breeding sat up and talked back to his television set: ”Yes, it does, and I know what it is.”

Breeding was referring to inertial navigation:

“which uses a computer and motion sensors to continuously track the position, orientation and velocity of a target without the need for external references.  Inertial navigation is so exact, the system is used to guide missiles — like one used earlier this year to hit the fuel tank of a spy satellite 150 miles up.”

In contrast, global positioning satellite systems (GPS) “assigns every meter on the surface of the planet a unique address,” but they don’t work in the deep blue sea or in the dark as a dungeon of an underground mine.  

The Beacon-Journal’s Schleis introduces us to the three-man team which has been working on the inertial navigation system especially designed for use in underground mines. 

  • Russell Breeding: an electronics technician navigator on U.S. Navy nuclear submarines 
  • Mike Millam: a fellow U.S. Navy veteran
  • Jay Breeding (Russell’s cousin): a businessman from Tuscarawas County, Ohio 

In the two years since Sago, the men have been devoted to developing the tracking system, and they’ve invested more than $560,000 of their own resources.  This includes thousands of hours of uncompensated time, and out-of-pockets costs for material, travel and licenses.  The entire project to-date has been self-funded. 

Just recently, the team secured a substantial investment from JumpStart, a venture development group, which “identifies and invests in early-stage companies that have strong potential in the marketplace, solid prospects for high growth, and are likely to qualify for later-stage funding.”  Because JumpStart is connected and committed to the Northeast Ohio communities, Russell Breeding has moved his family from Virginia Beach, Virginia to Akron.  (His cousin Jay was already living in the Buckeye State.)

I was so pleased to read about JumpStart’s investment in the InSeT system, but I know that securing this funding has been a challenge for InSeT’s team of three.   It would not have come without the men  already sinking $560,000 worth of your own time and resources into the project.  Sticking with the “ah-ha!” moment-inspired project for more than two years takes a special kind of persistence —a persistence driven in large measure by belief that underground miners deserve a better chance at survival and rescue than they have now.  Too bad the metrics used by NIOSH to award research grants couldn’t measure the value of this project.

As I’ve written previously (here), in the fall 2006, NIOSH received $10 million in emergency supplemental funding ”for research to develop mine safety technology” and awarded nearly $5 million of it to just one firm: the SYColeman Corporation. This company was selected by NIOSH for two of the three awards for communication and tracking systems. 

I’ve been trying since August 2007 to get a simple questions answered by NIOSH about part of its process for awarding these mine safety research grants.  I learned that the grant proposals had been reviewed by a NIOSH’s technical review panel, which included non-government officials.  I simply asked for the names and affiliations of the individuals who served on panel.  CDC/NIOSH denied my FOIA request, claiming that releasing this information would be an invasion of personal privacy and would interfere with the agency’s deliberative process.  I disagree with their determination and I appealed their decision in February.  My FOIA wait continues.

Despite a disappointing experience trying to obtain NIOSH funding, the InSeT team persisted without federal funding.  Now, they can celebrate the tremendous designation from PopSci magazine here as a top ten invention for 2008! 

As Russell Breeding has said to me and others:

“The ultimate reward will be when a mine disaster happens, the trapped miners are quickly found with our tracking system, and they all go home alive!”

Celeste Monforton, MPH worked with Davitt McAteer on the WV Governor’s investigation of the Sago Mine disaster.  She first met Russell Breeding at a symposium in April 2006 in Wheeling, WV when his nugget of an idea for a tracking system was just coming together.  She’s been watching from afar his progress launching this business.


2 thoughts on “Sago and an Ah-Ha! Moment

  1. My congratulations to Mr. Breeding. Having lived in WV for eight years, mine and my husband’s heart went out o these miners, as we watched intently at every news item associated with the mining accident and disaster. It broke our hearts.
    Please let Mr. Breeding know that we are very proud of him personally–we have known him in VBeach.

    Mrs. Moore

  2. Mrs. Moore,
    Thanks so much for your comment. I’ve passed it along to Russell Breeding and his two partners in this endeavor. If you know him from Virginia Beach, you know how much he has put his heart and soul into this project all on behalf of the miners. We need more people in our country and our world like him!


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