Construction giant trials ‘smart’ hardhats to track employee health

Multinational construction company Laing O’Rourke has come up with a novel way to monitor and protect employee health – an interactive ‘smart’ hardhat.

The helmet is based on a sweatband sensor array and data collection unit that can be retrofitted to an existing hardhat. It constantly reads the temperature and heart rate of the wearer, plus the external temperature and humidity. It also contains a GPS module to locate the wearer, as well as an accelerometer to indicate orientation and impacts or vibrations.

The UK-founded company, which expanded its operations in Australia in 2006 with the acquisition of Barclay Mowlem, says local vibration and sound alerts are delivered to the wearer by the control unit and all data collected is transmitted over a low-power ZigBee radio to a central gateway for storage.

The central gateway is equipped with a 3G M2M industrial router that allows remote access to all data collected and generation of alerts by SMS and email. Data is collected and organised using the evolving Internet of Things functionality offered through Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform. Microsoft partner MoQdigital assisted with the implementation.

“The safety of our staff is paramount at Laing O’Rourke; we want to make sure our people go home safely every single day,” said Ryan Macnamee, Laing O’Rourke’s global CIO. “And because of the climate in Australia, one of the issues we face is heatstroke; and the problem with heatstroke is, by the time you feel the symptoms, you already have it, so you need to have been warned well before you are exhibiting symptoms.”

“So by using a store and forward process to put the data into the cloud and leveraging Microsoft’s Power BI platform, we can streamline analysis and make better informed decisions and projections about the data we’re seeing and then proactively warn people,” Macnamee said. “That gives us the ability to alert a supervisor to say, ‘Your team has been in the sun for too long’ or, ‘An individual in your team is exhibiting symptoms of heatstroke.’ So it gives us an opportunity to be very proactive.”

Laing O’Rourke’s focus on the Internet of Things (IoT) and the hardhat technology is being driven by an internal innovation team, the Engineering Excellence Group, which was set up approximately five years ago to deliver “disruptive innovation and explore emerging technologies”.

“[T]hat’s not just new bits of tech; it’s a big process,” said Rod Shepherd, Device Engineering Lead at the Engineering Excellence Group. “My remit is effectively to look at all sorts of different technologies that are either in the market, or emerging, and manage our own internal prototyping and R&D efforts. We try to keep our finger on the pulse across the board.”

The solution is not yet perfect, however. Macnamee explained that there were limitations with the initial system design, such as reliable access to the data logs over 3G and subsequent manual analysis of large spreadsheets.

The group is already examining ways to further expand the potential for the hardhat once the trial is complete, including the possibility of licencing the technology, and says it is “excited” about the future with IoT.

“I’d say that the IoT space is opening up and things are just charging ahead there, moving very quickly; and obviously that’s one of the reasons why we’re really interested in working with Microsoft and looking at their software platforms – because things always fall down when you don’t have a decent back-end,” said Shepherd.

“You can deploy as many devices as you want, and in fact the more you deploy, the more problematic it becomes if you don’t have that fabric supporting it.”

The Engineering Excellence Group says it has identified other obvious IoT opportunities in the company around managing people, plant and infrastructure.

“Managing large pieces of plant on site; managing interactions between plant and our ground crews or fixed assets, so there’s collision avoidance,” Shepherd said. “The early focus for us has been in the health and safety space. But we are also keen to explore other areas where IoT can assist us in our goal to challenge and change the traditional methods of our industry.”

Delimiter attended the Ignite conference on the Gold Coast this week as a guest of Microsoft.

Image credit: Microsoft