​Wearables – Innovative Or Invasive Technology?

First there was the smartphone and now we have wearables. These devices, also referred to as wearable technology or wearable devices, are becoming the norm rather than the exception in today's increasingly high tech working environments. But what exactly are 'wearables'?

Many smartphone devotees these days would consider that device to be a wearable; certainly they're very rarely without it somewhere on their person so they have a point. However, the term actually refers to electronic devices such as sensors, cameras, and even computer chips that are incorporated into items of clothing or accessories so they can be worn. Examples of wearables include:
  • Smart clothing made from e-textiles and smart fabrics. These products may have a sensor either attached to them or embedded in the fabric, or the fabric itself is the sensor. Strain, temperature and pressure sensors, optic fibre cables, conductors, resistors, diodes, transistors, solar cells and so on that can be interwoven into fabrics have all been developed and are constantly being refined and improved. Of course, once you have smart fabric there's virtually no end to the type of smart garments that can be produced. Smart caps, beanies, and headbands are already being produced for various types of applications.
  • Smart watches that provide a lot more functionality that merely being able to tell the time. Many baby boomers will recall fictional characters like Inspector Gadget and Agent 86 with their array of high tech sci fi gadgets like phones in shoes and watches that doubled as weapons, cameras et al. At the time these gadgets seemed like far-fetched products of scriptwriters' fertile imaginations but today they'd be found wanting with modern audiences. Today's watches are capable of sending notifications about calls, emails, messages, social media updates and more. They're a type of smart jewellery particularly targeted at women who like to keep track of their electronic life even when they don't happen to have their smart phone handy.
  • Smart jewellery can also come in the shape of rings, bracelets, and earrings.
  • Fitness trackers have been around for a while but these days they're a far cry from the originals. They've evolved from a simple gadget that merely counted your steps for you to a sophisticated piece of equipment that not only does that but can also keep track of what your heart is up to. Along the way, it'll keep tabs on how many calories you're burning and the amount of effective exercise you're doing.
  • Sports watches step it up a notch. Not only can they monitor exercise, heart rate and so on, but they also come equipped with a GPS tracker and can tell you how fast you're walking, running, cycling, swimming etc.
  • Head mounted displays that can transport you off into a virtual world where reality becomes whatever you want it to be, or whatever your head mounted display is capable of telling you it is. This particular type of technology has significant applications for mining as we explored in a previous post.
  • Implantable devices that can be surgically implanted underneath the surface of the skin. It sounds incredibly intrusive technology and probably could be in unscrupulous hands. For the moment though their use is primarily restricted to medicine where they're valuable aids for monitoring the health of patients ie keeping track of insulin levels, monitoring heart rate and so on.

As you'd expect of up to the minute technical gadgetry, the chips, sensors, and other components in these devices are highly advanced, very powerful, and ultra sophisticated. In most cases they perform everything you expect of your smartphone or laptop and then some. They're designed to provide a constant, portable and thus convenient flow of information between devices as well as hands free access to computers and other electronic equipment. The other advantage of wearables is that they can provide data that other portable devices like laptops and smartphones can't, or at least not yet! This includes tracking physiological data and providing biofeedback. Sports watches and fitness trackers are a good example of this type of wearable technology.

Wearable Technology And Its Potential Application In Mining

One of the most obvious uses for wearable technology in mining is to improve occupational health and safety on mine sites and out in the field. As more readily accessible mineral deposits become depleted, miners are being forced to reconsider locations once deemed unviable – too deep, too remote, too dangerous and so on. Obviously going after these reserves will create potential health and safety issues but if the use of wearables can minimise or mitigate these, the unfeasible suddenly becomes a lot more feasible.

For instance, the use of wearable technology in the form of biometric devices that can monitor the environment and also the health of workers out in the field or down a mine, will be invaluable not just for their well-being but also for preventing accidents. These devices for example could monitor workers' cognitive capabilities and provide a real-time alert if they detect someone is getting too tired or too stressed to work safely. One mining company is already looking at wearable technology that will incorporate algorithms capable of detecting when workers are becoming dehydrated and will be able to remind them to have a drink.

Environment monitoring devices can relay information about the immediate work environment and provide constant feedback about air quality and temperature, thus allowing companies to be pro-active about responding to risks and front line workers to withdraw safely before conditions become hazardous. Radio-frequency ID tags can be used to keep track of the whereabouts of workers, an important consideration should disaster strike. Wearable devices currently being used by mining companies include proximity detection sensors that allow workers and equipment to avoid collisions, brim mounted cameras, and bio-sensors.

Of course there is also the view that such devices are a ploy on the part of companies to monitor employees from a disciplinary perspective rather than a health and safety perspective. Unions notably may be prone to take this view, which is why implementing technology designed to keep track of employee movements or health and fitness should probably be done with their input. Getting them onside at the start could save a lot of problems further down the track.

There is also a requirement for mining companies to spend some time putting systems into place that govern the use of wearables. Privacy acts for example prohibit employers from gaining access to sensitive or private information about their employees, which may include health details. Therefore, any wearable technology that could inadvertently cross these boundaries and turn up private information needs to be implemented with care and strict regard for legalities. There also needs to be policies in place governing the security of, and what's done with this type of information once it's been collected.

It goes without saying that companies also need to provide education about any wearables they're introducing, including the reasoning behind its implementation, the type of data it will collect, appropriate responses to this data in the case of environmental and bio monitoring sensors, and how it's been stored securely.
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