Hold on to your hats: Smart hardhats are coming

The new DAQRI smart helmet promotes augmented reality maintenance diagnosis. Photo source: James Martin CNET

Mark Willliamson
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Pulp and paper maintenance staff take note. Just-released safety headgear made smart by an Intel processor is designed specifically for "augmented reality" diagnosis on the industrial internet.

Just a couple of months ago Paper Advance reported on the fledgling smart glass technology as an important future ingredient in predictive maintenance capabilities. But hold on to your hats – hard hats that is - as new developments in this field are coming fast and furiously and adding more substantial pieces to the jigsaw puzzle of this fusion of technologies known as the internet of things or, more appropriately, the industrial internet. CNET correspondent Roger Cheng reports from the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that Intel has introduced in a keynote speech that the DAQRI company has developed a safety helmet with augmented reality capabilities. Essentially, it is a combination of smart glasses, safety headgear, and 360 degree visualization and navigation aids all controlled by Intel's M7 processor. Most importantly, the technology can be shipped today.

Focused on real workers needs

Wondering what augmented reality is all about? Wikipedia defines it as a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. The positioning function could be replaced by magnetic navigation in places where GPS doesn't work well, like in the bowels of a pulp and paper mill. This definition is fine if the developer's goal is to make cool technology for the sake of technology. It certainly is ground-breaking and very cool. But to have real value and a long-lasting impact in an industry like pulp and paper the acquisition of data from the process equipment, its interpretation and visualization is the key to a winning product. Augmented reality is the vehicle to enable the main goal, which is to make maintenance diagnosis more time and cost effective, and avoid unnecessary and costly process downtime.

Rather than consumer-focused surreal gaming applications or virtual travel experiences this technology is aimed at real workers at construction sites and in industrial plants. DAQRI developers and executives speaking in the company's YouTube videos say that the focus of the development was to make a maintenance tool to help workers as they go about their daily walking route tasks. By the way, hearing protection, which is mandatory in most mill locations, is missing conspicuously from all the DAQRI videos, but future generations must include that. The battery power required to drive the sensors and processor is said to be enough to last for one work shift. That would seem to be essential.

Reading and digitizing the needle on a dial gauge is one possibility. Source:DAQRI
The sensor package in the helmet includes four HD cameras for 360-degree vision, a 3D depth sensor and an accelerometer. Some journalists say that it gives a worker X-ray vision of plant equipment, but that claim seems a little far-fetched right now. One capability shown in a video is the reading and digitizing of a needle reading on an analog pressure gauge. Presumably, data from smart digital transmitters could be visualized as well. Another useful imaging technique is highlighting of machine parts that need to be replaced.

A smart helmet display could highlight and alert a maintenance worker to replace a component. Source: DAQRI
Diagnostics create value

The data displays on the helmet visor could be real, practical and everyday functions of a maintenance worker, like instrument calibration, transmitter and mechanical equipment fault diagnosis and even thermal hot spot detection. Those diagnostics are the real value-creating applications. This is where application development companies like Valmet step in and make sure the displays give the worker insight into how to detect, visualize and fix a problem proactively. Their augmented reality program was outlined in the November 30, 2015 issue of Paper Advance.

Some experienced maintenance workers already use their senses to detect impending problems. More than that, this new technology may add to their senses and their problem solving capabilities. The real benefit is a repair is made quickly and surely. Ultimately, repairs could be predicted and planned well before failures happen and that would have a big impact on plant reliability and production uptime.

Don't expect maintenance mechanics to dress up like Star Wars storm troopers any time soon. Changing out a bearing is still physical, dirty-hands type of work. However, walking route inspections could be aided by this technology, thereby avoiding surprise failures and ensuring maximum uptime.