Prof. Jean S. Verhardt, CEO
How often do people complain about fatigue, even though they might have spent a large part of the day sitting idle at their desks? Truth be told, fatigue due to lack of sleep or physical and mental exertion is an increasingly common problem. Now, imagine people who spend their day working in an open-pit, operating heavy equipment such as a haul truck; the resulting fatigue can be more severe. The lack of quality sleep and work-related stress will invariably increase the chance of human error, leading to highly expensive, disruptive, and sometimes fatal out-comes.
Fatigue has been a perennial problem in the mining industry. As a matter of fact, driver fatigue is responsible for up to 65 percent of all the fatal accidents in open-pit mines worldwide. Also, drowsy driving caused by fatigue is a leading cause of accidents on highways. In light of these, many companies are trying hard to reduce workplace mishaps caused by fatigue. However, most solutions available today use fatigue detection cameras or other fatigue management sys-tems to just 'detect' fatigue as it occurs. Cameras detect the consequences of fatigue, such as closing of eyes, not tiredness directly. By then it is too late. Ideally you want a system that de-tects the effects of tiredness on the physical and mental abilities of the operator before they start driving. This is where WOMBATT—a London based fatigue management company—places its bet. WOMBATT's innovative solution can predict when the consequences of fatigue are more likely to occur and help people take suitable action. WOMBATT's technology driven fatigue risk management system (FRMS) fits into a mine's existing risk management system to stop sleepy drivers from even getting behind the wheel.
"We are improving the safety and productivity of mines by focusing on detecting abnormal lev-els of tiredness through changes to the voice before the operator takes part in safety critical jobs,” says Prof. Jean S. Verhardt, the CEO of WOMBATT. With its unique predictive solution, WOMBATT VOZ ensures zero fatigue-induced workplace incidents for haul trucks and other machinery drivers and operators in open-pit mines, and on long-haul road access routes to and from the site.
About eleven years ago, after selling his first Space technology venture—DSpace Pty Ltd, a South Australian satellite communications company—Verhardt started WOMBATT's journey at the European Space Agency's (ESA) Business Incubation Center in the Netherlands. The WOMBATT VOZ voice-based fatigue prediction technology was invented by Verhardt’s equity partners in WOMBATT, Professor Mark Huckvale and Dr Iya Whiteley, research scientists at University College London, in an ESA funded technology development programme. “Voice is a particularly useful means to detect changes in fatigue through the day as it is sensitive to both the physiological and mental changes caused by tiredness,” says Professor Huckvale.
ESA was interested in using voice-base fatigue technology to predict the early onset of fatigue in astronauts for future manned missions to Mars, after noticing that fatigue has been a leading risk factor on long duration Space missions. "We are bringing the same system to the mining and road transport industry. Our voice-based fatigue prediction and monitoring system has proven to be a real game changer due to its cost-effectiveness and accuracy compared to other methods. Besides, our technology operates in the background, so it's non-intrusive and doesn't interfere with the activities of drivers or operators," says Verhardt.
The Power of WOMBATT VOZ
Under Verhardt's leadership, WOMBATT has come a long way from its first startup funding by ESA to a whole new ESA commercialization funding program last year. Today, WOMBATT offers 24/7 real-time haul truck fatigue monitoring and Condor fleet tracking services to track and monitor driver behavior via satellite, cellular networks, or WiFi.
According to Verhardt, the pen-etration of fatigue detection systems into the mining sector up until now has been quite low. Companies are still not scientifically dealing with fatigue due in part to high cost and doubts about the accuracy of existing technologies. WOMBATT aims to change this narrative with the power of WOMBATT VOZ, and with the company's team of specialists in operator and driver fatigue and satellite communications from all over the globe, ensure that in the future all mines can afford accurate, technology backed driver/ operator fatigue prevention.
As a voice analysis system, WOMBATT VOZ can determine a person's level of tiredness by ana-lyzing a short recording of their voice, captured on a smartphone, tablet or computer using a dedicated app, and processed in the cloud. The App, which is available in many languages, can be installed on the user's own device or on dispatch systems already installed in vehicles. The drivers/operators are required to send at least three voice samples per day, one at the start of the shift, one in the middle, and then at the end of their shift. This process builds a model of how the speaker's voice changes through the day to form a baseline against which abnormal levels of fatigue can be detected. If abnormal levels of fatigue are found at the start of the day this may indicate that the operator has not had enough sleep, while abnormal levels during the day may indicate that the operator requires a rest period. It identifies small variations in voice occurring over the day by comparing the current voice sample of a driver with the ones previ-ously collected and measured at the same time of the day, or with the population data set, in case if it's a new driver. WOMBATT VOZ uses deep neural networks to build up a complete pic-ture of what a person's voice normally sounds like at a specific time in a day. As more data is fed into the algorithm, it becomes more accurate over time and generates results within se-conds, which are then sent back directly to the users device over satellite or cellular networks, and to supervisors’ mobile phones via email and/or text message.
Real-time Intervention Ensuring More Safety
WOMBATT uses the traffic light system to notify the drivers and concerned management about every equipment operator's fatigue status. The green color depicts that everything is fine, or-ange is for caution required, and red means the individual is becoming tired, and action has to be taken. An SMS or email alert is sent to management or supervisors in cases of growing fa-tigue risk presented by the red or orange alerts. WOMBATT's comprehensive, cloud-based re-porting system that processes all these signals is continuously updated and is easily accessible to management. It allows management to take real-time intervention to prevent operators from being at risk of an incident due to fatigue or sleepiness on the job. More importantly, it makes the driver and the operator more aware of themselves and provides a better understanding of whether they are fatigued. "As the old saying goes, the only solution for lack of sleep is sleep. We encourage mines to install fatigue huts onsite where equipment operators can take a power nap of about 20 minutes after an alert, so that they can resume work feeling less tired and not endangering themselves and others around them"says Verhardt.
"Our system operates in the background, so it's non-intrusive and doesn't interfere with the activities of drivers or operators"
For mining haul truck drivers, a crucial feature is the system's non-intrusive nature as it does not require any specific device, such as cameras, bands, or caps for operating. Apart from the easy and fast installation and simple user training methods, its low maintenance cost is an add-ed advantage. The solution can also be integrated with other Risk Management Systems (RMS) used in mines to facilitate proactive action. "Our system operates in the background, so it's non-intrusive and doesn't interfere with the activities of drivers or operators. This increases its ac-ceptability to operators, which in turn improves the chance of being widely adopted and ulti-mately maximizing overall safety," states Verhardt.
Sparking a New Wave in Fatigue Management
To spread awareness about the consequences of fatigue, WOMBATT goes beyond providing just the technology. The company offers extensive on-site change management, system train-ing, and lifestyle and family training, including spouse and children training. WOMBATT focuses on teaching not just the operators, drivers, and ground staff, but also the management about the consequences of fatigue and how to handle developing fatigue.
Moreover, the company offers the operator's family, sleep, and tiredness training in local communities using the local language. "We offer training both offline and through our online training portal, which allows users to access all their training materials and real-time updated data on their sleep, fatigue, and diet history," says Verhardt.
Considering that alcohol is another common reason for road accidents as it also impairs driving performance, WOMBATT plans in the future to add more capabilities into its voice system to detect alcohol/intoxication levels along with fatigue.
Although operator fatigue is a safety risk in all mining and road transport operations, and fa-tigue technologies of various types have been in existence for more than 20 years, only about 10% of mines so far have fatigue technology installed aboard haul truck fleets, and an even lesser percentage aboard road transport fleets. “The key problem inhibiting technology uptake in the past has been the high cost of fatigue detection equipment hardware and installation aboard the trucks, combined with high fatigue monitoring fees” says Verhardt. “By using a free App installed via Google Play or similar on existing Android mobile phones/tablets and Windows computers accessing the cloud, WOMBATT eliminates hardware, equipment installation and monitoring costs and all that is left is a small monthly service fee”. Users can make a recording on their home computer or mobile phone before leaving the house, before shift on a tablet or computer in the lineup room, during shift on the on-board Dispatch touchscreen computer or tablet, and on their own mobile phone before driving home. This system is not restricted to truck drivers. “We finally have a fatigue prediction technology which is available at very low cost to all employees in every mine. SaaS (Software as a Service) fatigue technology covering all workers in every mine at very low cost has been on the mining industry wish list for years and is now available” said Verhardt.
Today, although operator fatigue still stays a key business risk in the mining industry, it won't be an over-exaggeration to say that the quest for more accurate, economical, and unobtrusive ways to predict fatigue ends at WOMBATT.
Steve Dixon, CEO of STRACON—a Lima based provider of mining and construction services in Latin America, says,
"We believe that the new voice-based fatigue detection technology being developed and com-mercialized by WOMBATT has significant potential in the mining industry to help solve the oper-ator fatigue problem."
WOMBATT has been working with mines in the United States, Chile, Guyana and Peru, a long distance passenger bus company operating in the Andes mountains and air traffic control at a major airport in South America. Looking forward, the company plans to expand its reach to markets across the rest of the world.
WOMBATT VOZ successful implementation in Air Traffic Control means that the system is ideal for controlling the fatigue of operators in mine remote control centres, where drivers in real time in a central city location control haul trucks and other equipment located on site hundreds or thousands of kilometres away. Central remote control centres are now being established with the introduction of autonomous and semi-autonomous trucks at many mines, and WOMBATT is a proven solution to manage the fatigue of the centrally located operators.
With each stride, WOMBATT remains steadfast in its mission to save lives by leveraging its next level fatigue prediction technology, combined with the best possible training at every level, delivered by its expert team.
In the words of a senior mine operations manager in the United States,
“My personal opinion of the (WOMBATT) system is this: I believe it is the only system on the market that is a predictive tool for identifying fatigue before it leads to an incident. Which then teaches the user to become the predictor and ultimately make changes to their lifestyle and cre-ate better habits to prevent fatigue events. Once this happens, you are then able to optimize time and resources to work with leading indicators vs. time and resources chasing lagging indi-cators and not solving the root problem. The root problem in my opinion is operators not fully understanding what is inhibiting proper rest or how much they truly need, or partially a subop-timal schedule that could be changed.”