Laing O’Rourke embraces the possibilities of IoT
Construction is an inherently dangerous business, but when it is being conducted in some of the most remote and inhospitable regions of the world the potential dangers take on a different, more challenging dimension.
For Laing O’Rourke, an international engineering enterprise, the safety of its employees is paramount, especially those operating in the remote regions of Canada, the Middle East and Australia.
That’s where the technological possibilities being unleashed by the Internet of Things are set to assist.
The company has been undergoing an IT transformation over the past year, focussing on Digital Engineering – moving away from paper drawings to designing virtual buildings through 3D – and the gathering and analysis of huge amounts of data.
Using Microsoft Azure, services like Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS) along with the assistance of software developer and Microsoft Partner MOQdigital, Laing O’Rourke in Australia has been trialling some innovative technology.
“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, the company’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.”
The answer is an interactive smart hardhat which is based around a sweatband sensor array and data collection unit which can be retrofitted to an existing hardhat. It monitors the temperature and heart-rate of the wearer, plus the external temperature and humidity. It also contains a GPS module and an accelerometer for determination of orientation and the impact of vibration/shock.
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 allowing for remote access to all data collected and generation of alerts by SMS and email.
“The main limitations with the initial system design were reliable access to the data logs over 3G and subsequent manual analysis of large spreadsheets. 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,” Ryan 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 IoT focus and the hardhat technology is being driven by an internal innovation team, the Engineering Excellence Group (En.Ex.G), which was established around five years ago to deliver disruptive innovation and explore emerging technologies – “and that’s not just new bits of tech; it’s a big process,” Rod Shepherd, Device Engineering Lead at En.Ex.G, said.
“We work across all major business functions to deliver excellence though innovative thinking and practice”
“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 En.Ex.G is already examining ways to further expand the potential for the hardhat once trialling is complete, including the possibility of licencing the technology, and 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,” Rod said.
“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.”
He said the En.Ex.G 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,” he 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.”
“It’s basically about not rushing in too quickly, it’s about building a really reliable base configuration that fits into the corporate infrastructure and then building on that, which is where I see us going.”
Mick Badran, MOQdigital’s chief technology officer, said Azure had made it all possible.
“What Azure IoT Suite brings for us is an incredible set of functionality and capability. So we get to expand our toolbox by tenfold when Azure’s in town – there’s just some amazing different services.
“So as a builder, as a developer and integrator, it’s just far too much of a compelling platform to ignore.”
Ryan said the company was also embarking on an upgrade of a major public road asset “and we will be embedding some ground movement monitoring devices in the soil so if there’s erosion or a change in the structure of the soil, we’ll be able to alert.
“The initial design for this monitoring service called for the data to be stored locally and then gathered on a weekly basis. The Internet of Things gives us the capability to get real-time monitoring so that we don’t have to wait for a weekly pick-up of the data, then for some analysis to happen and, maybe two or three weeks later, you know that there’s been a problem.
“This gives us real-time capability of seeing what’s going on the ground, literally in the ground, on a minute-by-minute basis.”
Ryan said Laing O’Rourke was leveraging off Microsoft’s investment in innovation.
“Microsoft has far more R&D to spend on innovation than us,” he said. “The things that we can do in Azure now would have taken a large team, years to complete.
“I’m talking about the ability to get data from different sources into Azure, stick it in the Cloud, have it scalable so that I don’t have to worry about purchasing more hard drives and space to store the data, I can just put it there and I know Microsoft will take care of it.
“I can then analyse the data through the data services; we now have a mechanism to give people visibility of that data, either through alert or through dashboards or analytics, so that people can see what’s going on.
“By leveraging Microsoft’s investment, we don’t have to spend the money; to us, it’s a nice commodity: we just turn it off and on as we need it.”