High-Tech Future Beckons for Operators

Emerging Technology Promises to Enhance Performance

By Mark Rosenzweig

ABB Automation & Power World 2013

Operators in the process and energy industries stand to benefit from technology now advancing in the consumer market — everything from augmented reality to autonomous quadcopters. So say Jonas Brännvall, global product group manager, extended automation, for ABB, and Elina Vartiainen, scientist in ABB's corporate research group.

Their presentation "Future Operator" this week at the ABB Automation & Power World event in Orlando, Fla., proposed how these technologies, as well as 3D visualization and wearable computer-control devices, could positively impact operators, and also cited the potential value of social media at sites.

"3D visualization technology already is a mature technology using gaming engines," noted Brännvall. For example, he cited a 3D visualization of a Swedish pulp mill ABB developed for use in the mill's control room. Touching a particular area on the 3D rendition brings up real-time data on the relevant key performance indicators for that area. The information is easier for whole group to view and, thus, should enhance communication and discussion during shift handovers, noted Brännvall and Vartiainen.

Augmented reality enables providing more information about a real object (as opposed to just a depiction of it) when someone looks at the object on a screen. "Augmented reality has been around a few years, and it is widely available for all of us through mobile apps," said Brännvall. For instance, ABB offers a free augmented reality app — Augmented xA — in the iTunes store that shows how the technology could work in an industrial environment.

"Eye-tracking and gesture technology could be very attractive in the future. Imagine that you work in an oil rig, which can be a dirty environment where you use safety equipment. Then it might not be easy to use keyboards and a mouse to interact with the system if you are, for example, wearing gloves," noted Brännvall.  At sites such as offshore platforms, Vartiainen speculated that remotely located experts could use gestures to have robots on-site perform necessary work.

Camera-equipped quadcopters, small helicopters that can navigate on their own without remote control, could show what’s happening in a hazardous part of a site without having to put operators at risk, or view otherwise hard-to-reach areas. Another attractive potential application is to use quadcopters with 3D cameras for real-time 3D modeling of a plant site.

Social media also can play a role in improving communication and collaboration, say Brännvall and Vartiainen. "Social 800xA is a concept where we looked at how to take the best pieces from social media and apply them to the field of control systems… [The] idea is that all the plant workers can update their status in Social 800Xa and view each other’s status messages regarding what they are currently working on. In addition to this, the process devices also post their status — so, for example, they have an alarm that shows up in their status message stream," explained Brännvall.