Passing muster

Jon Lawson

Louise Smyth meets the man behind an innovative real-time location solution designed to improve productivity and safety in process facilities

According to Howard Bedford, chief commercial officer at Locasys, the process industry is on the cusp of a revolution in terms of plant management. And Bedford believes that his firm’s technical solution will be the enabler for this transformation.

“The benefits of location awareness and auto-identification at the enterprise level continue to grow as the integration of analytical and visualisation software tools, maps and navigation applications enhance the power of real-time location service (RTLS) based solutions and make on-site location intelligence commonplace,” states Bedford, who refers to a 2015 report from MarketsandMarkets that suggests the global indoor location market is forecast to grow from US$935.05 million in 2014 to over US$4,424 million by 2019, at an estimated CAGR of 36.5% during the period.

At a personal level, Bedford fully understands the deployment requirements in process environments; he is a chartered engineer with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s in Business Administration. Prior to joining Locasys, his commercial experience featured over 30 years in senior sales, engineering and management positions.

The use of RTLS provides a big opportunity for process-based businesses to increase productivity, cut costs and improve staff safety. The convergence of business intelligence (BI) with mobile and big data has shifted data to the core of most organisations, yet even the best BI platforms may be lacking important ‘location’ information. The good news, explains Bedford, is that this gap can be bridged by the deployment of RTLS.

“Location intelligence (LI) from our LocaTOR system complements customers’ current metrics of who, what and when with real-time knowledge of ‘where’. LocaTOR, as its name suggests, locates people and assets in real time when they are inside or close to buildings.”

How the solution work

LocaTOR identifies and locates the on-site position of non-fixed objects, assets and people in real time. It’s a contactless system comprising receive/transmit, mains or Power over Ethernet (PoE) powered beacons and battery powered active tags. The beacons are deployed around a site attached to walls, gantries and other fixed points suitable for detecting the presence of assets fitted with fixed active tags or people who wear tags in the same way as they wear an ID/access control card.

Bedford explains that, “LocaTOR tags each emit a unique identifier and, as any tag approaches and passes by the beacons, the network becomes aware of its presence and therefore its real-time location.

“Contactless means that the beacons and tags correspond with each other by wireless technologies; tags merely have to be near a beacon (range adjustable per application) to be detected.”  He adds: “Data generation and data handling – real-time location information about the tag - is transmitted from the identifying beacon to the database(s) either locally or in the cloud.”

Applications intended for use

Bedford reveals that the system was originally developed to provide continuous location information about the movement of personnel and assets such as security keys in spaces that require a high level of security, primarily prisons and casinos. Yet he has observed how the solution can be applied to any task or process that needs location intelligence to make it more effective and efficient. He comments: “Examples of applications include: asset monitoring; traffic movement (eg, portable equipment, fork lift truck movement); inventory status (e.g. linked to an asset register for equipment maintenance); and employee contractor, lone worker and paired worker safety.”

It’s that last point – worker safety – that makes the solution especially attractive for process plant operators, whose work often involves complex environments with staff spread out across large areas. So, what exactly are the worker safety benefits? Bedford says: “As an example, in a application where LocaTOR is deployed as a muster/roll call solution on large production facilities, worker benefits include the fact that this is an entirely automated solution. Personnel only need to walk away from the alarm and head towards the nearest muster point or assembly station. As this is a non-contact technology, a staff member is registered as “safe” as soon as the beacon detects the tag. This prevents queuing and uncertainty – the registration is undertaken automatically. And because the system is location aware, the roll call is continuously cross-checked and the last known location of anyone who fails to register is shown on the roll call list.”

Bedford adds that LocaTOR is also deployed in facilities with dangerous environments. “A system’s output can provide extra safety interlocks to prevent the launch of processes if personnel are detected as located in the prohibited space.”

Operational efficiencies

As well as safety benefits, Bedford is keen to point out that there are considerable operational benefits too. He states: “These include operational efficiencies – the movement and the way portable assets are used; as well as asset utilisation and purchasing management – reduced procurement based on better utilisation of existing assets. Improved decision making and material management workflow (the interaction between assets and personnel) is another key factor.”

These kinds of benefits to plant managers are also being cited by those offering solutions in the burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT) sector. Bedford believes that LocaTOR “sits within the IoT as it was originally defined by Kevin Ashton late last century.” He says: “In the context of his definition, each LocaTOR system comprises a network of objects (tags and beacons) that utilise RFID. LocaTOR is a machine to machine (M2M) system - tags provide real-time location information to a server, and the supervisory software presents this on a dashboard.

“In time, the IoT is expected to offer advanced connectivity of devices, systems and services that goes beyond M2M communications to cover a variety of protocols, domains and applications. The interconnection of tags to other embedded devices (including smart objects), will enable automation in nearly all fields and specifically in process engineering.

“It makes perfect sense for LocaTOR to include the capability to operate across other ‘IoT platforms’ and utilise IoT-designed communications, such as LAN, WAN and LPWAN networks (for example LoRa and SigFox) and use core modules designed for the IoT. The emergence and uptake of such specifications, and the availability of standardised sensor modules (tags) will offer more opportunities for RTLS and perhaps extend the range of the solutions beyond the current on-site focus.

“The current ‘little data’ (datum by datum of positional information) stream from the tag constantly drips into the big data pool at the database. Each datum can be used and deleted, used and stored, or not used at all. With current deployments, a large amount of information is deleted as it is not useful (e.g. binary status of safe/not safe is all that the solution requires).”

Interestingly, Bedford believes that the next big development in the industrial sector could occur as a result of the enthusiasm for ‘connected’ devices in the consumer market. “Wearables are starting to drive context and interactions in an exciting way and personnel that may have been reluctant to have their location noted are starting to want these systems. Furthermore, the tag can be fitted with sensors such as temperature, heart rate and other monitors.

“The LocaTOR user interface dashboard is updated in real time. Configuration of the LocaTOR supervisory software enables the presentation of reports, alerts and other features to be developed by the user. So already in our current system each tag wearer can see their own location and relational status via their smart devices.”

One key area of concern in the IoT world is security of actions and data flow. Bedford believes that his current technology is “inherently safe” as the tags and beacons can’t be switched off from the LAN or WAN. “Currently we see the flow of data to be from the tag to the database and we don’t see the ability to switch the tag off as something that’s beneficial to businesses.”

What’s next?

In the near future, Bedford hints that LocaTOR will evolve with technological advancements to include other sensing features. “Inbuilt accelerometers are available in certain tags already,” he explains.

“Our software developments will extend the location intelligence functionality of the solutions. LocaTOR can already provide a solution for any company that may otherwise purchase separate systems for access control, roll call registration/muster management, lone worker/paired worker and safe working in prohibited or dangerous spaces. The same infrastructure can be used for portable asset and personnel location intelligence based solutions.”

He also reveals that broadening the areas of application for the solution is next on his list of goals. “Lately our focus has pointed to the pharmaceutical, fine chemical and chemical engineering markets that deliver laboratory, engineering workshop and scientific research applications worldwide.”

Real-world case studies

With regard to specific process industry applications of the LocaTOR solution, Howard Bedford shares two recent case studies. The first was a large production facility in the North of England, which deployed the Locasys technology as a muster solution. Bedford says: “The initial installation was to improve the roll call registration procedure of 500 personnel at a production facility, part of a global group. The site had only one muster point at the single gatehouse. The customer required an automated roll call registration system implemented by three muster points, all activated when the site emergency alarm operates.” Both productivity and safety were improved by reducing the roll call time from 20 minutes to seven and by automating the roll call registration, eliminating manual roll call or physical logging of personnel. The three muster points the project created are evenly spread around the site’s perimeter, meaning no queues at any point. Efficiencies are further improved by enabling staff to return to the production facility as soon as any evacuation drill (or indeed real emergency) is over. Bedford adds: “In terms of safety, the solution also provides the emergency services (e.g. fire brigade) with a completed roll call report, locating the position of any staff who did not register at a muster point.”

The second case study was a staff and visitor location application for a waste conversion facility. Bedford says: “ The site incorporates mechanical biological treatment plants that treat waste and use composting or anaerobic digestion to turn it into useful products and materials recovery facilities that prepare recycled materials for re-use. The site is open for organised parties of school children during term times.” The results achieved here saw the roll call time – including visitors – brought down to less than 10 minutes, and the automation of the roll call registration, eliminating manual roll call or physical logging of personnel. Facility operators now know where all staff and visitors are – and know when visitors leave safe areas.

The competitive edge

Its makers believe that the LocaTOR solution has both hardware and software features that set it apart from competing solutions on the market. Bedford says: “It is fully contactless and therefore tag wearers do not have to do anything different to their current modus operandi. And it is wholly dedicated to real-time location intelligence; it’s designed specifically for on-site RTLS and cannot be tampered with at the tag or beacon level or accidentally switched off.” He adds that LocaTOR does not use GPS or already/previously installed Wi-Fi service access points as these systems become unreliable. “GPS doesn’t work well indoors, and Wi-Fi APs can be overloaded and location intelligence no longer flows in real time.”

Bedford also states that the system ahs been designed to be user-friendly. It can be implemented out of the box and is completely scalable: the number of tags and beacons on each system can be increased to cover the largest site with multiple solutions.