Fiber-optic video helped rescue Chilean miners

The rescue seen and heard around the world was a major success in large part due to a tiny shaft drilled weeks earlier that — with more than 2300ft of lowered fiber-optic video cable — helped maintain the health and sanity of the miners trapped for 70 days deep below the surface of the earth.

That small shaft, reaching the chamber where the 33 men were trapped, was opened on Aug. 22. Items of less than 4in in diameter could be lowered into the shaft.

The ultra-flexible fiber-optic video cable with camera and a tiny video projector was lowered and twisted through the rocky crags to the miners. It became one of the unsung heroes of the rescue effort. Together with 500W of electricity and a funnel of fresh air, it saved lives and kept the miners in nearly constant communication with rescuers and the miners’ loved ones.

The lifeline, later expanded to three such shafts, facilitated a high-tech life underground. The men wore clothing made with a bacteria-killing copper fiber, watched movies on a projector built into a mobile phone and communicated with rescuers over an ultra-flexible fiber-optic teleconferencing system and telephone system. The telephone had to be taken apart and reassembled after making the trip down a shaft.

Each miner got a daily video consultation with a doctor. Chilean officials assigned psychologists and a personal trainer by videoconference to tend to the men. Doctors were also able to send down a biometric belt that allowed the miners to monitor and transmit their vital signs to the surface using wireless technology.

For pleasure, the men were able to watch news, movies and live soccer. One miner was even able to connect with his wife when his daughter was being born. Each had brief video chats with their families on Fridays and Saturdays, for a maximum of eight minutes each, thanks to compact video cameras with built-in LED lights connected to the fiber-optic system.

The miners watched television, but the programming was prescreened by a team from Micomo, the telecommunications subsidiary of Chile’s state-owned Codelco mining company. The goal was not to send intense dramas or other programming that might constitute mental cruelty to the men trapped below.

Personal music players with earphones were not sent below because they tend to isolate people from one another. Togetherness in a rescue situation was considered essential to survival. Each miner, however, was sent a Sony PlayStation portable handheld gaming device.

The men also received a small high-definition video camera, which they used to record a large part of their ordeal. They maintained high spirits, and some of them recorded jokes — eight hours of them.

It’s clear the technology played a major role in the saving the lives of the 33 men. Many have called the video images of the miners as captivating as images transmitted back from the moon during NASA’s Apollo 11 space mission on July 20, 1969.