When Fatigue Can Be Fatal

Can biometric wearable technology improve safety in the transportation industry—and is transportation just the start?

While self-driving vehicles and high-speed commuter trains that take passengers from city to city may be part of our lives in a few decades, the transportation industry, now more than ever, is in need of present-day solutions to improve the safety for all its travellers.

Figure 1: Professor Amnon Shashua, senior vice president of Intel and CEO/CTO of Mobileye, spoke on the future of autonomous driving at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. (Credit: Walden Kirsch/Intel Corporation)

While we can rest assured that organizations like Mobileye, an Intel® company and advanced driver assistance solution, are already working on ensuring safety in self-driving vehicles (Figure 1), other companies like KOSTechnology, creator of real-time drowsiness alert systems, are working to advance safety mechanisms in traditional driver-led vehicles.

Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMS) that monitor fatigue-related safety to ensure employees operate at adequate levels of alertness have been in place for years in the transportation industry (Figure 2). However, little is done outside of enforcing duty time limitations and minimum rest times between shifts to ensure the operator doesn’t fall asleep at the wheel.

Figure 2: Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMS) monitor fatigue-related safety. Now, thanks to innovative new biometric measurement, customized information, including where a driver consistently shows signs of fatigue, is coming to FRMS.

For companies in the long-haul trucking and aviation industries, putting their employees and property at risk because of fatigue-related accidents is a big problem that the transportation industry has yet to solve. Fortunately for drivers and employers, biometric wearables like those being created by partners KOSTechnology and Valencell could be the answer to making the road and airways safer sooner rather than later.

The Safety Problem
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), fatigue-related traffic accidents in the U.S. are estimated to be 100,000 per year. This includes 1,550 deaths annually, 71,000 injuries, and a 12.5-billion-dollar monetary loss in equipment—and these numbers figure to be conservative, since statistics rely on the individual willingly reporting to the police that the accident was caused by fatigue.

And these are just the accidents that occur. The National Sleep Foundation’s survey Sleep in America recently estimated that as many as 168 million people have driven while feeling drowsy in the past year, and over 103 million have fallen asleep at the wheel—making the potential for fatal accidents even greater than the numbers suggest.

The challenge for the transportation industry is finding a way to provide real-time feedback to drivers of fatigue symptoms before drowsiness occurs. This will allow for proper intervention before there is any real risk of safety.

One such solution are biometric wearables, which have the potential to monitor vital signs and provide feedback for the wearer to take action when there is a warning of fatigue.

Wearable Technology Designed for Transportation
Whether it’s smart watches, fitness bands, or gaming devices, biometric sensors are being used for a variety of purposes. For the transportation sector, data like heart rate, heart rate variability (HRV), and activity levels which are measured by wearables can also help to detect a person’s fatigue level—or risk for falling asleep at the wheel.

By collecting metrics with a biometric sensor system or other wearable technology, the user will be able to determine energy levels, quality of sleep, training load, and stress levels. This will help the user determine how ready they are to take on strain and stress prior to getting on the road.

Once the user is driving, any dips in individual baseline biometrics will be signaled with an audio or vibration alert. Detection can occur several minutes before the user begins to nod off, making correction possible. If the driver is working for a company, a third-party can also be notified of the driver’s low, medium, or high-risk assessment so direction can be given.

In addition to these biometric measurements, transportation wearables can provide GPS notifications to alert drivers when they’ve steered off course and data collection that can provide customized information, such as sections of a daily route where a driver consistently shows signs of fatigue.

Real-Time Notification
KOSTechnology recently partnered with Valencell, a biometric sensor company, to develop one of the first real-time notification transportation wearable devices (Figure 3). The KOS wearable, outfitted with Valencell’s market-leading biometric sensor for collecting user data, is currently launched for the long-haul trucking industry, and uses a “patented algorithm to detect manifestations of drowsiness before a scenario becomes a threatening hazard.”

In a situation where time matters, minimizing the margin of error in biometric wearables is crucial. Valencell’s benchmark optical sensors ensure accurate biometric data sets across a variety of users and activity. This high-level precision helps to minimize potential lags in response time to fatigue-risk events. Another benefit that stems from high-level precision is that rounded results, including those that could unnecessarily  alert the user, are avoided.

Figure 3: A biometric sensor capable of discovering drowsiness so as to avert its becoming hazardous.

The wearable also has the ability to alert a driver, dispatcher, or other third-party when unwanted drowsiness occurs in order for countermeasures to be taken. This includes a software program that collects data, provides insight based on the data, and makes actionable recommendations. For example, analysis of historical data can determine if a specific route offers increased danger to the employee along with alternate rest points that may be used.

While loss of life and property was the driving force behind the need for this technology, KOS also notes its wearable can be used to improve other aspects of the transportation industry, such as improved scheduling for drivers, overall route risk, and performance organization of employees.

KOSTechnology Training Systems also developed a user training tool to teach individuals how to recognize habits that cause fatigue along with techniques to improve performance and efficiency on the job. This combination of real-time feedback, system intervention, and user training shows the potential for transportation wearables and how they can improve safety in the transportation industry in the years to come.

Potential for the Future
With existing technology already making its way into the trucking industry, heavy-machinery operators, public transportation drivers, and the railroad and aviation industries seem like the next in line to begin utilizing transportation-based wearables. Whether it’s an airline pilot on a red eye or construction worker operating a crane, big improvements to worker and environmental safety can be made.

Wearables and the algorithms that detect drowsiness like those from KOSTechnology have logical applications in the consumer market too. The commute home from work, a family vacation, or a cross-country trip are times when fatigue-related risk behind the wheel are possible. And since taking these extra measures will improve safety for everyone on the road, it isn’t unreasonable to think that using this technology while driving could lower insurance premiums and lead to additional discounts for safe driving.

Outside of transportation, this same technology can make just as significant an impact in other industries where fatigue at work can be a serious issue. Members of the military standing watch, medical staff on overnight shifts, or miners working long hours are all occupations that could benefit from biometric wearable technology to improve safety.

As co-founder and President of Valencell, Inc., Dr. LeBoeuf has developed ongoing strategic partnerships between Valencell and leaders in industry and academia. He has raised more than $10M in funding for Valencell and is the inventor/co-inventor of more than 50 granted patents, including dozens of foundational patents in the field of accurate wearable sensors. Prior to Valencell, Dr. LeBoeuf led the optoelectronic biosensor program at GE Global Research, where he managed the development and productization of biosensor systems and developed cutting-edge nanosensor technology. Before joining GE, Dr. LeBoeuf developed optoelectronic solid-state materials and devices while researching at North Carolina State University. Dr. LeBoeuf holds a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from N.C. State and a B.S. in Mathematics and Electrical Engineering from Louisiana Tech University.

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