What is a smart PPE ?
A smart PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is a tradionnal PPE equipment such as a hard hat, or shoes, boots or even protective glasses that feature somewhere an embbeded smart & connected unit or on which a smart & connected device (a.k.a wearable) is mounted. In both cases, the smart & connected unit provides (haptic such as vibro-tactile) interaction with end-users and also with a remote server in the cloud to provide connected worker online or offline features.
There is a minimum list of hardware components that you will likely find in those smart units:
- A battery (mainly Li-Po chemestry).
- An IMU (Inertial Module Unit providing in general accelerometer and gyroscope).
- An MCU (the microcontroller where you run your code).
- A wireless communication modem (in general, it is based on Bluetooth Low Energy).
Smart PPE and Connected Worker features are parts of a more global revolution which is called industry 4.0 which represents the massive digitalisation of our industrial processes and equipment.
Smart PPE targets mainly B2B markets but there is also a need and a B2C market for individuals who want to be protected during their activities (for instance outdoor or DIY activities).
What are the different types of smart PPE ?
As far as Intellinium is concerned, we started in 2015 prototyping the first smart safety shoes by embedding hardware inside the sole. But eventually, we decided that it was the wrong way and we shifted to the second approach which is to propose a unit that can be mounted (see our safety pod) on safety shoes, safety boots, belts, keyshain or badge by using our multi-mount system.
The benefits of proposing an external add-on are:
- You still have a great choice about the PPE you want and you are not limited by the smart PPE product range proposed by current players on the market.
- It’s better for the planet as usually the lifespan of a PPE is 3 times lower than the durability of an electronic device.
- It’s better for your budget as you can mount the add-on for you or for someone else. That is not possible for embedded smart PPE as you cannnot propose your shoes to someone else.
- It’s better for technical performance. In most cases, getting an external add-on will give you much better performance, especially from a telecom perspective.
- It’s better for recyclability.
Smart PPE is a keystone for connected worker solutions
There is a lot of hype in connected worker market, somewhere similar to smart cities. Most of big consulting and high tech companies have found very lucrative to target those trendy topics.
But the truth is that market is driven by added value use cases and that those use cases are mainly directly or indirectly related to security of safety. The other use cases do not get that much traction.
Not only a smart PPE connects workers to a remote cloud but it also connects the worker to its surrouding environement. Said differently, protecting worker is not only about monitoring the worker himself but it’s also about connecting the worker in real-time to his environment.
For instance, Intellinium has been developping 2 products: “safety pod” (mounted on the worker) and “detection pod” (mounted on equipment and infrastrucure). The detection pod can detect abnormal events and can immediatley notify the safety pod about hazard. Then, the safety pod can notify the worker by vibro-tactile feedbacks. It can be used to avoid collision between workers and construction vehicles or to protection workers operating close to railways.
Smart PPE can also “talk” to another smart PPE on the same worker. There are a lot of use cases that we could think about, for instance PPE Presence Detection.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of potential features / use cases that can be adressed by connected worker features. All those features can be classified into use cases families such:
Safety and Security is undoubtely the main traction today with worker safety, end-user safety, protecting vulnerale adults temporary or permanently, asset tracking, machine monitoring…
What about smart PPE international standardization ?
Currently, there is no standard about smart PPE and I believe that might not be that soon. Do you know any standard about what is a “smartphone” for workers? The answer is NO. There are standards for traditionnal safety boots or shoes but that might be very complicated to issue a global standard for smart PPE.
Nevetheless, Intellinium is part of IEC TC 124 working group about wearables and there are some current ongoing initiatives and works about standardising for instance step counting or heartpulse measurements at wrist. But it is far from generalizing what is a smart PPE.
Additionnaly, we have to mention British (BSI 8484 2016) and German (DIN VDE 0825-11) regulations about Lone Worker standards. But smart PPE does not really fit with those approaches. For instance, dual-way communication channel (part of standard requirements) require a mic which is not present in 99% of smart PPE.
Protecting the end-user data privacy is a more key acceptance requirement on the field as well as a legal requirement (GDPR Directive in Europe) than a standard by itself even though complying with ISO 27 001 or other security/privacy standards might help a lot.
Last but not the least, some local organizations such as OPPBTP in France are trying to come up with some smart PPE requirements (especially from a performance perspective) for a given industrial vertical (in this case, it’s the construction industry) but those initiatives are limited and cannot/will not drive worldwide standardisation.
Why 2022 might be THE year for smart PPE ?
First of all, Smart PPE require telecom protocols offering deep penetration and coverage and a massive availability at a viable cost. The good news is that 4G LTE-M, 4G NB-IoT and LoRaWAN are in 2022 massively available in Europe, US, Australia…almost everywhere. That’s a very critical criteria for allowing rise of smart PPE to a bigger scale.
The other conditions is to get multi-core MCU featuring low-power consumption as well as enough computing power to run AI algorithms when needed. The good news is that it’s possible now, for instance by combining nRF9160 from Nordic Semiconductor with Zephyr OS from Linux Fondation to get stellar performance combined with low power.
Last but not the least, protecting workers (employees or sub-contractors) has never been that important and companies, wherever thet are located, are massively investing to secure their best assets, the human assets.
So without much doubt and despite the global raw material shortage, if we combine market traction and product/technology availabiliy, we can assume that 2022 will see the rise of smart PPE !