High-tech hard hat increases safety and efficiency at work site


By James E. Kloeppel

An innovative, computerized piece of headgear can protect workers and improve the quality of the work at construction sites, says Liang Liu, a UI professor of civil engineering. Dubbed the digital hard hat, the device is a helmet-mounted data-collection system that captures and communicates construction-site information in multimedia formats.

"The digital hard hat combines the functions of a camcorder, tape recorder, an electronic notepad and digital camera into one compact, lightweight device," Liu said. "Integrated with a portable computer and telecommunication network, the digital hard hat allows the wearer to collect, store, receive and transmit construction-project information via text, images, sound and video."

The prototype, developed by Liu and colleagues Wen-Mei Hwu and Vaduvur Bharghavan in the department of electrical and computer engineering, consists of a protective plastic helmet, video camera, microphone, headset, head-up display (a visor-mounted viewing screen that allows the wearer to see data and physical surroundings at the same time), computer and telecommunication link. The head-up display serves as a monitor for both the video camera and the portable computer, which is carried on a belt. The entire package weighs about 5 pounds.

"Construction documentation plays a key role in the success of a construction project," Liu said. "Because this information must be recorded accurately and efficiently, many inspectors supplement their written reports with photographs, drawings, and audio or video recordings."

But carrying and operating a number of individual devices can be awkward -- even dangerous -- at a construction site, where inspectors must frequently dodge materials and machinery, and climb on ladders and scaffolding, Liu said. "The digital hard hat promotes worker safety not only by protecting the head, but also by providing for hands-free operation through voice-activated control."

In addition to collecting and documenting project information, the digital hard hat allows the operator to communicate with remote experts to quickly resolve engineering or construction problems. Through the telecommunication network, an on-site user can also retrieve project data such as design details, specifications and construction schedules from remote computers. Information collected in the field can be stored digitally as a computerized daily report and become part of the project archive, along with the actual construction drawings.

The digital hard hat also could be used in other applications, Liu said. "In disaster assessment and mitigation, for example, remote experts could assess the safety and structural integrity of a building damaged in an earthquake while rescue workers [wearing the device] search for survivors."

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