With the launch of the Apple Watch just a couple of weeks away, now is the perfect time to talk about wearable technology in the construction industry. The use of tablets and smartphones at the construction site is a commonplace sight these days. There are an ever-growing number of apps available to tackle a wide range of tasks at the jobsite from viewing plans and specs and performing final punch lists to aiding in project documentation and acting as time clocks for workers.
The problem with these devices is that you have to stop what you are currently doing and fish your smartphone out of your pocket or grab your tablet in order to take a quick look that the plans or snap some photos to document an issue or the progress of construction. This is where wearable technology comes into play. With a pair of smart glasses you could call up and view plans with a transparent heads-up display (HUD) or a Building Information Modeling (BIM) model overlay using augmented reality (AR). You could dictate projects notes to your smartwatch or use it call the architect to get clarification on a recent change order.
Wearables have been around for a couple of years now. Google Glass was launched back in April 2013 and other smart glasses soon followed. The smartwatch has actually been around since the early 2000s, but it wasn’t until the Pebble launched in 2013 that smartwatches started gaining wider popularity. Recently we’ve seen wearables starting to make the switch from consumer toy to workplace tool. Technology companies are now starting to develop applications and workplace solutions for wearables for industries like construction. In addition to adapting current hardware like smart glasses and smartwatches for use on the construction site, they are also working to create industry-specific devices for the construction sector like smart hard hats.
Two companies, DAQRI and Atheer, are both developing smart hard hats that have built-in transparent visors with AR capabilities. The benefit of creating a smart hard hat for construction is that you can pack a lot more processing power and battery life into a required piece of safety equipment like a hard hat instead of trying to squeeze it all into a pair of smart glasses.
DAQRI’s Smart Helmet will run on Android and be powered by a pair of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips. In addition to its AR display capabilities, the Smart Helmet will also feature a hi-res 3D camera, inertial measurement unit and 360° navigation cameras. The hard hat will be capable of taking HD video and photos as well as being able to create 3D maps of a worker’s environment. There will also be sensors to gather information about the wearer’s environment and issue warning signals when hazardous conditions are detected. Alphanumeric capture will allow the hard hat to read and understand instrument panels and signs. The interface will have the ability to be controlled by a paired smartwatch.
Atheer’s smart hard hat will feature a visor that has all the AR capabilities of their consumer smart glasses. Cameras will allow for project documentation and users will be able to view plans, emails and project notes using the AR display. They’ve also developed software that allows the hard hat to wirelessly connect to a laptop or tablet regardless of operating system in order to overlay the display and control that device. Technology like this won’t come cheap. The DAQRI Smart Helmet is expected to be available in June with a price tag around $10,000. Price and release date for the Atheer hard hat is currently unknown.
While Atheer and DAQRI are integrating technology solutions focused on improving productivity and increasing quality into safety equipment, others are focusing on making safety equipment even safer. Human Condition, a New York-based think tank, is developing construction wearables with a focus on eliminating injuries and fatalities caused by OSHA’s Fatal Four Hazards, falls, struck-by, electrocution and caught-in/between.
They’ve designed a safety vest and hard hat with integrates low-cost wearable computers, sensors, GPS and real-time locating systems (RTLS). The hard hat would be equipped with solar chargers and the safety vest would have kinetic chargers to power these wearables. The safety vest includes an airbag collar that would inflate should a worker fall and would monitor vital signs and repetitive motion. The hard hat has built-in LEDs that does double duty as both a work light and a safety beacon. All of the data gathered from these devices can be accessed through the cloud with a mobile interface in real-time so site supervisors can keep an eye on all the workers at a jobsite.
Smart clothing, or e-textiles, that can monitor vital signs like respiration rate, skin temperature and heart rate will also make their way to the construction site. These wearable will be able to monitor a worker’s posture, track movements, determine if they are suffering from fatigue and whether they are intoxicated or under the influence of narcotics. Keeping a watchful eye on workers can help predict an accident before it occurs.
I’m betting a smartwatch developed for the construction industry would do well. It would have to be ruggedized, shock-proof, dust-proof and water-proof, with a battery that could last through a 12-hour shift. The near field communication (NFC) could be used as a time card for workers to clock in and out on a mobile device located at the entrance to the jobsite. Safety briefs and other communications could be sent as text messages and the worker would be able to make and receive calls. Sensors could track movement and vital signs or the smartwatch could also be used as a gesture control device for other wearables or internet connected devices and equipment.
The “Internet of Things” will be the key to bringing it all together. Let’s say a worker has clocked in for the day using his smartwatch. He immediately gets a text alert on his smartwatch informing him he is scheduled for work on a scaffold that day. As he approaches the scaffold his smart hard hat and visor begins displaying safety tips for scaffold work followed by a checklist the tools he needs for the day and tasks he is expected to complete. As he begins to climb the scaffold, his internet-connected personal fall protection begins emitting a loud warning signal because he left it sitting on a bench. His smart hard hat has alerted it to do this because the cameras and sensors detected he was climbing a scaffold without the proper PPE.
Wearables for the construction industry are going to help increase productivity and improve safety at the jobsite. Chances are if you can think of a problem wearable technology could solve on the construction site, there’s already someone out there working on a way to make it a reality and bring it to market.