Evolution of Optalert’s drowsiness detection hardware

Monday, January 19, 2015 by Chris Hocking

Fatigue management has long been considered an integral part of many company safety policies and procedures; however drowsiness detection is a relatively new concept still in its infancy. Over the past eight years we have been developing early-warning drowsiness detection systems to combat the risk of fatigue-related incidents; here we provide a short history on the evolution of our hardware.

The beginning of drowsiness detection

Optalert launched its first early-warning drowsiness detection product (V6) in November 2006. This product was designed for road transport, and consisted of a processor, speaker, two-colour (red or blue) visual indicator and a USB connection point for the Optalert glasses. The system operated on a processor with 32MB RAM (yes, megabytes!) running the Windows CE 5.0 operating system. Interaction between the driver and the system was minimal in that the driver only received feedback (flashing red indicator and an audible warning) about their drowsiness when they reached a Medium or High Risk level.

After receiving feedback from users, it became apparent a more interactive system was required, and we could help drivers to better manage their drowsiness if we were able to show them their Johns Drowsiness Score (JDS™) in real-time. The result was the JDS™ Indicator, released in February 2010, which used a basic, segmented LCD display to show the user system status information and their drowsiness score. This was a world-first. Operators in the field could now measure and monitor their drowsiness level in real-time. Thousands of hours of data from our systems in the field has shown this simple act of showing the driver their JDS™ score (a form of biofeedback) reduces drowsiness levels and thereby reduces the risk of drowsy driving incidents. This feedback is a core feature of our systems today.

Around the same time, we realised there was interesting and valuable data being recorded by these systems in the field, but we had no way of making use of that data, as it was simply being recorded and stored on the unit. We added wireless communications to the units in the field by connecting the processor to an external 3G modem. Although it seems antiquated in today’s world of devices with multiple on-board communication interfaces (3G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, etc.), it allowed Optalert to retrieve that data and enabled customers to see the periods of greatest risk for their workforce.

Out in the field, our systems were really being put to the test in mining haul trucks in various remote locations. Fine red dust permeated every part of the system, and badly corrugated roads shook loose connections and wiring, leading to a realization of the need for a ruggedised unit. Consequently, the V7 was released in May 2012, with all system components encased in a ruggedized housing to protect them from the harsh operating environments in which our customers’ vehicles operated.

To simplify the system and improve wireless communications, a change to a processor with an onboard 3G and Wi-Fi modem was made. The resulting V8 unit, with its familiar blue aluminium housing, was released in January 2013.

Electronic devices have come a long way since the launch of our first system. They are much smaller, lighter, cheaper, and have far more processing power, and greater connectivity than ever before, such that they are now an indispensable part of everyday life. With this evolution of technology has a come an evolution in the expectations of users, especially since the release of the iPhone in 2007, and the explosion in smartphones and tablets since then. We now expect technology to look and feel cutting-edge, to be easy to use and to maintain connectivity and enable us to interact with other systems and users around the clock.

The first eagle takes flight

To keep pace with these changing expectations, and making use of the incredible advances in technology since 2006, in May this year we released the next generation of our vehicle system, the eagle INDUSTRIAL, a ruggedised tablet with modern operating system (Android) and touchscreen user interface. With all necessary componentry (display, speaker, 3G, Wi-Fi and Ethernet connectivity) in the one unit, this system has a number of advantages over our previous systems. It is easier and quicker to install, and as of October 2014, supports wireless software updates and configuration. This makes it a more flexible, cost effective solution for customers. We estimate a 75% reduction in maintenance time compared with previous systems.

Additionally, the eagle INDUSTRIAL will support the Optalert Wireless Glasses, which are due for release this year. This next generation of Optalert glasses will communicate via Bluetooth with the eagle INDUSTRIAL and will be able to be used for at least two full 12-hour shifts before needing to be recharged.

While Optalert started in the mining and long-haul road transport industries, it has become apparent drowsiness is an issue for workers in many areas of these and other industries. Consequently, the need for comprehensive fatigue monitoring and management is equally applicable, particularly given the increasing prevalence of shift work.

Drowsiness detection for a professional mobile workforce

The eagle PORTABLE is the world’s first portable drowsiness detection device, and has been designed for these workers, particularly those operating light vehicles. This makes it ideal for mobile professionals for whom driving for long periods and distances is a large part of their role, such as site managers, sales and service reps, infrastructure service personnel and those who commute long distances to and from work. Its low weight and small size mean it is easily transferable between vehicles, and when paired with the Optalert Wireless Glasses, it will be an affordable and easy-to-use early-warning drowsiness detection system.

In future, Optalert intends to bring drowsiness detection technology within reach of everyone, which will mean cheaper, more widely available and more user-friendly products. Stay tuned as we continue the journey to make drowsiness-related accidents a thing of the past.

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