MIT IoT and wearable project foretells the future of industrial safety

An MIT team’s award-winning research and IoT prototype demonstrate a tangible application of wearable and IoT technology, providing a look at future industrial safety applications

Industrial IoT, wearables

The IoT in the commercial sector might better be called the Internet of Prototypes, the IoP.

Few of the components for building the ubiquitous IoT that the future holds are available today. The best way to envision the future is by prototyping. Prototypes of mission-critical or high-ROI applications will tease money out of research budgets to build them. All the prototypes will lead to a greater understanding, and when the cost of the problem matches the development investment  the prototypes will become products. With cost reduction and standardization, products could become generalized extensible platforms.

+ Also on Network World: How industrial IoT is making steel production smarter +

MIT built a fitting prototype that could, with further development, scale into a platform. A multidisciplinary team from the MIT Design Lab led by MIT Media Lab researcher Guillermo Bernal won best research paper at the Petra Conference last month for the team’s work applying IoT and wearables to industrial safety. The sophisticated and purpose-built prototype at the center of the research makes the paper “Safety++. Designing IoT and Wearable Systems for Industrial Safety through a User-Centered Design Approach” extremely tangible and predictive about how the IoT will unfold.

The energy industry was the context of the research. Testing was conducted at refineries owned by ENI S.p.A. The team began its research with existing literature, interviews with plant supervisors and workers, and a study of video recordings of the production area. This research served as the framework for designing a prototype to close the gaps between existing protective measures and their adoption to protect workers from four risks:

Exposure: Exposure to chemical and physical agents is significant danger in the energy industry.

Man down: Lone workers are common in the energy industry, where operators have to inspect or maintain wide areas. Workers can encounter health issues such as strokes, incidents, heart attacks, etc. resulting in the loss consciousness, without being able to call for help.

Falls from heights: Falls from heights accounted for four of seven fatalities in a recent year in the European oil refining industry and 8.6 percent of lost workdays. In the closely related and the larger construction industry, 37 percent of the fatalities are related to falls.  

Load lifting: Workers often ignore weight limits by overestimation, work culture and even confirmation bias, from over lifting without injury.

Wearable IoT components

iot respiration vest Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The prototype begins with a vest designed to be worn by workers that is embedded with respiration, heart rate, and galvanic skin response (GSR) sensors. GSRs can measure emotional state. The vest includes 16 haptic devices to send sensation messages to the wearer, such as a nearby man down. The haptic devices and sensors tie into a 32-bit ARM processor that connects the vest to the outer layer jacket.

iot industrial environmental jacket Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The jacket has environmental monitoring sensors to measure air quality, noise levels, smoke and airborne chemicals. Alerts for dangerous conditions are communicated to the worker with haptic sensations and also sent to a supervisor’s dashboard.

iot industrial shoes Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Load lifting is monitored by work shoes that have embedded force sensors. In the event that the worker lifts an excessive load, the shoes vibrate until the overload is resolved. Nearby workers are notified that a co-worker needs help.

iot industrial equipment Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The IoT system includes a carabiner, a safety strap for tethering the worker when operating at heights to something stationary to prevent a fall. The carabiner includes a wireless module and a pressure sensor.

How the IoT wearable system works

The worker wearing the protective apparel is connected to peers and the supervisor’s dashboard via a ZigBee mesh network. The bio-sensors communicate individually, and the system analyzes them to measure vital states of the worker such as stress levels. These are selectively reported to both peers via haptic sensation and to the dashboard.

The jacket provides advance warning of potential harm to the wearer, and it monitors the entire work environment via the combined bio- and environmental sensors.

The carabiner pressure sensor reports whether or not it is attached. The altimeter and presumably the location sensor detects if the worker has climbed to a hazardous height. If the worker is strapped in, a signal is sent to a database and an actuator unlocks the worker’s toolbox. If the worker is not safely strapped in, the worker is notified with haptic sensations.

The designers of the Safety++ system considered that the IoT and wearable safety system communications traffic could cognitively overload the worker, creating a distraction. The haptic communication was surveyed with the workers to find the most accurate pattern to signal a condition. The authors left this as an open issue as an application-specific design factor.

The prototype test results were positive. The system was well received by both management and workers. The workers appreciated the peer-to-peer communications because the system relieved them of conscripting assistance lifting a load and provided protection via the bio- and environmental-sensors. Thinking about the Safety++ project, there is no reason that the sensors could not be added to provide other safety features, such shutting down dangerous machines.

The MIT team had unique design, development and fabrication skills needed to build the prototype. At the same time, there are many industrial conditions where the overhead costs per worker are measured in the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars per day due to the risks and environmental hostility. Configured differently, the Safety++ concept could be applied to new high-risk environments.

Insurance companies, regulators, unions and safety professionals have influenced the near universal adoption of fluorescent vests and safety apparel. This ubiquitous fluorescent apparel can be imagined to merge with the Saftey++ prototype concept, becoming a safety platform in every occupation when a wide-area IoT wireless infrastructure is built and sensors and radios are cost reduced.

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