Interview: BP’s Bob Flint – Wearable Technology At Work

Making technology sweat at the front line of energy

Ahead of 2018s Disruption Summit Europe. . . Bob Flint, Technology Director from BP spoke to DISRUPTIONHUB about innovation, wearable technology and the energy industry.

Can you tell us how you’ve seen technology and innovation change industry?

The energy industry is changing faster than at any time in my lifetime, and much of this change is being driven by technology innovation.

I work in BP’s Digital Innovation Organization (DIO); we scan the horizon to identify the next wave of digital disruption and flag up the opportunities and challenges that will impact our industry. Our model is to first understand the key trends – such as cognitive computing, quantum, blockchain and robotics – and then dive into them and really understand what they mean, how they’re developing, and where there are genuine breakthroughs.

How do you explore trends and foster innovation?

We work with start-ups, universities and labs across the world – last year alone DIO ran over 40 proof-of-concept and pilot projects. For those projects with the most potential, we work hard to scale them up across the organization; we want to embed the best technology into our business as quickly as possible.

What technology are you currently working with?

Recently, we’ve seen a lot of interest in industrial wearables. This is partly driven by the great strides taken in consumer health and fitness devices over the last few years, both in terms of sensors (measuring movement, heart rate and body temperature for example) and form factor (wrist, ear or chest mounted for example) which makes them truly usable. We see great potential in industrial situations, where front line staff might be in refineries, chemical plants, offshore rigs or wind turbines. These can be physically tough environments to work in, particularly as they may also be in some fairly extreme climates.

In many cases, these technologies can be translated from the consumer to the industrial sector, but they may need some adaptation along the way. A good example is that in many oil, gas or mining facilities some hydrocarbons may be present in the atmosphere and therefore they need “intrinsically safe” products. The process of designing and certifying an explosion proof electronic solution can be quite complex and needs specialist expertise.  Teams like DIO can help with this process, understanding the market opportunity and creating products that transform the way we work.

What is the most significant benefit offered by wearables?

Wearables can help keep people safe by monitoring their vital signs and giving advanced warning of dangerous conditions like heat stress. Wearables can also help in emergency situations where we need to know where everyone is and move them to a place of safety, or direct a first responder to help. We also see the value added through enhanced productivity – for example, by optimising workflows based on understanding how staff move around a plant, and by adopting “head mounted” instead of handheld devices which allows staff to always have both hands free.

Are you using wearables at BP?

In BP, we’ve already started using a number of wearable products. For example, we can detect the early signs of heat stress in a front line worker so we can intervene and make sure they are hydrated and cooled. We can geofence high risk areas of our facilities to help keep workers out of harm’s way. And we use “smart glasses” to provide guidance to front line workers from remote experts who may be hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

What other uses are you starting to see?

Elsewhere, other companies are starting to use smart headwear to monitor fatigue in drivers or operators of heavy machinery.  They are using wearables that warn when vehicles and staff are in danger of collision, as can happen with fork lift trucks for example. We’re seeing wearable technology embedded in helmets, wristwatches and even workboots.  And many industries are also evaluating exoskeletons, structures that can boost your strength and endurance for safer lifting, holding and repetitive operations.

What’s been the response to the use of these technologies?

Our team has experienced a very positive reaction to the initial projects.  

Ultimately, as industrial wearables become more commonplace and accepted, they are likely to become part of a worker’s standard personal protective equipment (PPE). We believe wearables will be a game changer in the energy industry!

To hear Bob Flint speak alongside 70 other experts, join us at Disruption Summit Europe 2018