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The future of “wearables” in the warehouse

From learning exoskeletons to thought-controlled drones

“Wearables” – small, internet-connected computers that are worn directly on the body – simplify everyday activities and leave users free to work with their hands. Devices such as ring scanners, smart gloves and augmented reality glasses are finding increasing use in the area of storage logistics. But did you know that wearables can learn from their wearers, move objects with the power of thought and also help stop the spread of COVID-19?

From simple fitness trackers to intelligent exoskeletons – practically everyone has come into (body) contact with a “wearable” by now. Wearable smart devices and the internet of things have become a fixed part of everyday life, and these smart devices are also being used more intensively in storage logistics. The US logistics association MHI estimates that by 2023 about 70% of all warehouse facilities will be equipped with wearables in one form or another.

Devices such as scanner rings, smart gloves and augmented reality glasses help minimize manual labor and enable more ergonomic processes. Scanned data is sent directly to the cloud. Or the scanners can be connected to smartphones by Bluetooth, for example to inform employees that they have picked the wrong item or quantity. This prevents errors and streamlines processes.


Avoiding risks with real-time feedback

Wearables can also collect extensive data not only for measuring work performance by also to increase safety in the warehouse. For example, the New York-based company KINETIC has launched a wearable technology called KINETIC Reflex. This device can be worn on a belt or waistband and is intended to prevent workplace injuries by automatically detecting body postures and movements with elevated risk and providing real-time feedback.

In consideration of COVID-19, KINETIC has extended this technology to simplify social distancing and enable more precise contact tracing. The KINETIC REFLEX now sends automatic warnings in the form of a light vibration when two employees do not comply with the safe distance. ProGlove, a German maker of Smart Gloves for industrial use, has also presented a similar new app function that measures the distance between two employees via the Bluetooth function of their smartphones, helping them maintain the appropriate minimum distance. Many other manufacturers of wearables and smartphone apps have followed the example of KINETIC and ProGlove in recent months.


Devices with “emotional intelligence”

Incorrect posture is not the only cause of warehouse accidents. The risk of injuries also increases when employees are exhausted or not paying attention. Wearable EEG devices measure brain activities to help identify such moments and minimize risks. One such product is the “SmartCap” developed by the Australian company of the same name. Depending on the model, the SmartCap looks like a typical baseball cap or a normal safety helmet. On the inside, however, it contains diodes that measure the wearer’s brainwaves to detect excessive fatigue and send a warning in the event of increased risk. The system rates the attentiveness of the employee on a scale of 1 to 5 to quantify the level of attention or fatigue. The SmartCap is particularly useful in mining, which requires physical work with maximum concentration. A number of Australian mining companies are already making use of this smart headwear.


Moving objects with the power of thought

The San Francisco-based company Emotiv also develops wearable EEG headsets ranging from discreet ear clips to “high-tech skull caps” that look like something out of a science fiction movie. Emotiv uses the measurement of brainwaves not just for determining mental states. The technology can do much more. Have you ever dreamed of moving equipment with only the power of your mind, like the Jedi knights in Star Wars? Emotiv has turned this dream into reality with a sophisticated brain-computer interface (BCI). Using a headset connected to a computer with the corresponding software, users can move objects with only their thoughts – whether it is an object on the screen or an appropriately programmed device in real life. In order for this to work, the user and the software must carry out a short training in which the software learns to recognize certain patterns of brain activity in the user. The user can then send simple commands by concentrating on specific thoughts. By activating the corresponding brain areas, for example, an object can be moved up, down, closer or farther away.

Emotiv makes use of brain activity to control drones

Racing thought-controlled drones

A group of students at the university of Florida used the Emotiv technology to hold the first thought-controlled drone race. In contrast to similar technologies, in which control takes place via head and face movements, this actually makes use of only brain activity to specify the direction. It will be interesting to see if this ever has an application in logistics. At any rate, the first flying drones have already found their way into the world of logistics. But this technology still needs some refinement before it is really ready. Emotiv makes clear that its devices are intended only for research purposes and are not designed for use as medical devices. We nevertheless find the technology and its potential applications – not just in logistics but also in healthcare, art and music – to be very promising.

Ottobock and cargo-partner: Secure transport of high-quality prosthetic parts

With the help of its well-developed road transport network and select carriers, cargo-partner transports Ottobock’s vulnerable prosthetic parts to locations all over Europe. The associated transport insurance and comprehensive consulting are also included, of course, since the high-quality prosthetics deserve nothing less than high-quality handling. Ottobock appreciates the reliable service and personal support: “Thanks to the Europe-wide network of select road carriers and the detailed advice of the cargo-partner insurance experts, we know that our valuable goods are in competent hands.”

Exoskeletons aren’t science fiction anymore

The possibilities of brain-computer interfaces are fascinating, but wearables can also learn from other body parts. Exoskeletons have been used already for some time in order reduce the strain of heavy physical work on the body – for example in warehouse operations or automotive production. Recently, the leading exoskeleton manufacturer Ottobock introduced two new models of its Paexo series that support the lower spinal column and the neck. But what happens when an exoskeleton is equipped with artificial intelligence? The South Korean company LG debuted its LG CLOi SuitBot in 2017, boasting that it had brought the first “wearable” robot onto the market. Like other exoskeletons, the device supports the lower back to avoid back and leg injuries when lifting heavy objects. But this exoskeleton is additionally equipped with artificial intelligence. This makes it possible for the “wearable robot” to learn from the habits of the wearer and continuously optimize the movements and lifting force of the device. In addition, the robot should eventually be able to connect with other service robots from LG.

Wearables simplify collaboration and bring increased safety: whether between human and human, such as for ensuring social distancing, between human and robot, as with the learning exoskeleton, or between smart devices, data clouds and other devices and machines. There is no doubt that great potential exists for “collaboration” with robots in the warehouse, but that topic deserves its own Trendletter article.

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