Sci-Fi meets mining reality: companies invest in connected worker technology

The RealWear HMT-1 helmet.

Virtual Method has joined forces with Librestream to unlock the potential of virtual reality and artificial intelligence in mining operations.

In the 2008 film Iron Man, the brain behind Tony Stark’s super suit is based on his artificial intelligence (AI) system, J.A.R.V.I.S., which is capable of displaying data and diagnostics to Stark directly from the helmet of his suit. 

This slice of fiction is not far off what is possible today through the means of AI and augmented reality (AR) provided by mining industry wearables specialist, Virtual Method. 

“As a wearables specialist and vendor for global mining and metals company Rio Tinto, Virtual Method has been working with various teams across the company’s aluminium operations in Australia and Canada to investigate and prove out potential use cases for wearable technology in the mining and manufacturing industry,” Rio Tinto IS&T business partner Scott Carson says. 

“Over the past 12 months, many workplaces have had to adapt to challenges associated with COVID-19, such as travel restrictions and remote working. 

“This has increased the industry’s appetite for better ways to communicate and share knowledge over vast distances, with wearable technology such as the RealWear HMT-1 a potential solution currently being trialled by Rio Tinto in a number of operational environments.” 

Virtual Method views AR and VR as the next phase of growing safety, collaboration, AI and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies in the mining industry.

And while mining companies are well-versed in sensor-based innovations that monitor heavy mining machinery, Virtual Method aspires to enhance the skills, capabilities and safety of workers themselves through wearable computing. 

Virtual Method chief executive officer and co-founder, David Francis, believes the concept of the ‘connected worker’ is the next step in the mining industry’s evolution.

This allows data to be recorded by voice commands in a simple and efficient manner, while also providing in-the-field, at-the-task capabilities to train and instruct workers so they stay out of danger and are compliant with safety protocols. 

“Fully-augmented, connected human workers will be an extensive stop-gap for the mining industry,” Francis tells Australian Mining.

“There is no doubt that transformation and automation is coming quickly, but not so much for the workers on the ground, who have heads full of special knowledge and capabilities that automation will struggle to replace for some time yet. So, it raises the question: how do you audit, augment and amortise the knowledge of human workers, and integrate them directly into enterprise resource planning (ERP), Microsoft 365 Azure or AWS data cloud, or asset management and safety systems?”

To solve this challenge, Virtual Method has developed a connected worker strategy with Librestream, the number one-rated provider of AR and remote collaboration solutions. 

Librestream’s Onsight platform helps workers and distributed teams gain immediate access to the content, people, relevant data and guidance needed to solve business challenges. 

“As a top-tier Onsight reseller partner in Australia, Virtual Method is trained to handle sales and technical support and to guide our customers to the solutions that provide the greatest value and return on their investment,” Librestream VP, business development Tim Harader tells Australian Mining.

Onsight acts as the foundation of an industrial workplace’s digital transformation by unlocking ‘edge-native’ capabilities for faster and more efficient operational capabilities that connect from across the globe. 

“Our remote expert software, Onsight Connect, allows workers at the coal-face to be able to reach back and access experts in various locations to solve problems, show how to complete tasks and to ensure any safety concerns are met and have that interaction even in challenging network conditions,” Librestream VP of product management, Jon Newman says. 

“This allows for the workers of a remote site to have that expertise they may not have been able to otherwise access, and to ensure best-practice safety, guided by expert-eyes domestically or even internationally.”

This function can be integrated into iOS, Android or Windows devices and wearables such as RealWear HMT-1 or Microsoft Hololens 2, to allow for live video-feed virtual inspections of sites, even at extremely low bandwidths, meaning it is capable of staying connected in remote environments unsupported by Microsoft Teams or Cisco Webex calls. 

Onsight also has a unique capability, when required, to plug into and meet these office-conferencing solutions ‘halfway’, and extend them to the remote-edge. 

Newman says AI analysis is also integrated into Onsight to assist workers.

“The use of computer vision allows Onsight to help recognise what the worker is actually looking at,” he says.

“The AI can help identify a particular type of control box, and the computer vision can recognise that and can bring in training material for how to maintain that equipment.”

Onsight is further capable of using IIoT telemetry to display sensors and mine-site equipment virtually for workers, with wearable technology provided by Virtual Method. 

For Newman, Librestream’s Onsight platform is designed to equip workers with the tools required for safer and higher skilled operations. 

“You see Iron Man and the heads up display he has with J.A.R.V.I.S. – we see that as the future standard for a worker,” he says. 

“That’s where we see it going and Onsight is well positioned in this space to add these capabilities and features for the industrial worker. 

“The key is to find the right complete solutions partner, such as Virtual Method, who can take you on the complete journey, across device-suitability, worker-onboarding and Onsight use-case identification plus integration.”  

This story also appears in the May issue of Australian Mining.

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