SmartCap Fatigue device saves lives
This device has been selected as the technology to be used in the fatigue trial in the Heavy Vehicle Safety Around Ports Project.
Article by Janelle Miles, The Courier-Mail (November 2, 2017)
It used to be the stuff of science fiction – workers having their brains monitored on the job. But a Brisbane businessman has made it science fact with the invention of a wearable device that analyses a person’s brain waves in real time – and he reckons it’s preventing accidents and saving lives.
Engineer Dr Daniel Bongers admits he knew next to nothing about brain waves when he spent a weekend more than a decade ago trying to come up with a solution to a deadly problem in the mining industry – driving while fatigued.
But by analysing data from electroencephalograms (EEGs) available on the internet, he developed a mathematical formula for measuring fatigue based on changes in the electrical activity of the brain.
Bongers, who has a PhD in artificial intelligence, then spent the next four years designing wearable technology that could take continuous EEG measurements and alert the user before fatigue reaches risky levels. “It will give an alarm if they get to a point of risk, but before they get there – when they’re at risk of becoming at risk – that’s when they will get an early warning alert, which is a gentle beeping,” Bongers says. “It will beep three times to let them know they’re heading towards risk, now is the best time to do something.”
After successful field trials, the device went on the market in 2011. Since then, more than 10,000 have been sold and the most up-to-date evolution is exported to 14 countries. It can be worn as a head band or as part of a hard hat, baseball cap, beanie or visor, connecting via Bluetooth to an app on a smart device or an in-vehicle display.
“What gets us up every single day is the thought that the harder we work, the better we make our product, the better we communicate what it does to people in need, the more chance we have of getting people home safe,” Bongers says.
“Way too many people die falling asleep at the wheel. We want to be part of what makes that zero.”
Bongers developed the technology while working for the Brisbane-based Co-operative Research Centre for Mining, an industry research body that has changed its name to Mining3.
The device enables companies to download individual EEG data, allowing it to be analysed as a workplace health and safety tool.
“In any country we sell the technology, somewhere between 4 and 8 per cent of the workforce is what we would refer to as high risk,” he says. “These are individuals who have an ongoing pattern of elevated fatigue and in most cases, they were entirely unaware of it.
“Health and safety systems will typically get involved and they will work with each employee to find out what’s going on. It could be poor lifestyle choices, it could be something as serious as sleep apnoea and it’s sometimes quite trivial things. For example, the clock radio beside the bed, the glow from that can impact the quality of your sleep.”
In 2009, Bongers’ design resulted in the establishment of a spin-off company, SmartCap Technologies, with offices at Milton, in Brisbane’s west, where he works as the chief technology officer.
Although most of the company’s income has been in mining, demand is increasing in the trucking industry.
The technology has also been used by crane operators, people loading and unloading shipping containers, and by marine captains piloting large vessels through coral reefs.
Within the next 12 months, the business hopes to expand to include regular drivers as customers.
Cost of the device depends on whether an organisation or individual buys the product outright, or opts for a yearly subscription.
“A subscription works out as cheaper than a cup of coffee a day,” Bongers says.
Even though the business’s primary focus is on preventing fatigue, the 39-year-old has identified other potential markets.
“We’ve shown a world-class competence in making algorithms based on EEG,” Bongers says. “That lends itself to doing things outside of the fatigue space. Wearable EEG hasn’t been something available to the world until we came along and so people are looking to us to say: ‘What else could you do?’ ”
Bongers expects all-day EEG monitoring will become more common place in medical settings, including as a warning of pending seizures for people with epilepsy.
He says it may also be used to assist anaesthetists in preventing rare cases of patients being aware during surgery and to optimise pain management, potentially allowing patients to be discharged from hospital sooner.
Applications in military and elite sports training are possibilities. “There’s a thing called readiness for action and it’s a person’s ability to respond to something happening around them,” Bongers explains.
“Readiness for action is an important measure for an elite sports person in terms of their ability to make sharp decisions. There are also military applications. The possibilities are endless.”