Keeping people safe in hazardous environments prompted companies to collaborate to develop pioneering technology

Words: Jonathan Lee, 32 West

WORLD-FIRST technology designed to keep people safe in highly hazardous environments has been developed by a collaboration of two companies.

Teams from REACT Engineering and Createc overcame working remotely through the COVID-19 lockdown to complete their pioneering system.

The ALARP Angel software, which maximises operations and minimises risks, makes a task safer, faster, and cheaper to deliver, and can be used in a range of environments across different industries.

The system, developed in a tight 12-month timescale as part of an industry challenge, gives added value by covering the full lifecycle of a project – the characterisation of an environment using a range of high-tech tools, training in VR and, if appropriate, a mock-up environment, and live real-time monitoring while a task is executed

All the information is stored electronically in the ALARP Angel software and the way of working means risk to operators is minimised as:

hazardous environments have been fully characterised using the latest high-tech tools and technology

full training has been carried out without entering the hazardous environment – by using VR technology and mock-up environments where appropriate

live-monitoring technology means any change in the environment is communicated from a supervisor to an operator via a wearable device while they are carrying out the task which leads to faster, fully-informed decision making

Costs are kept down because the tasks can all be rehearsed in virtual and mock-up environments.

And operations are maximised because with the live information available from the supervisor throughout the task the operator is able to concentrate on the executing the job, and if there’s a change in environment, exit or switch to another, safer task.

ALARP Angel can be modified to address any measurable or location based hazard, making it applicable to a wide variety of scenarios in a range of industries.

It can independently track multiple operators in a busy environment using Createc’s SLATE technology developed for the Ministry of Defence. And it can also track operators at any working height.

In the nuclear decommissioning environment characterisation is carried out using Createc’s proven N-Visage® system which has been commercially deployed at Sellafield in Cumbria, and extensively at the Fukushima Daiichi site in Japan.

The ALARP Angel technology has been developed through a Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) to protect nuclear decommissioning operators.

The competition, organised by Innovate UK and funded by Sellafield Ltd, was run in two stages with the final stage being concluded after COVID-19 lockdown.

Five team members from REACT Engineering and seven from Createc worked together on the programme as a combined team

Chris Woolhouse of REACT Engineering, who led the project, said: “The funded competition gave the two companies – REACT Engineering and Createc – the opportunity to collaborate and use the skills and expertise within both companies to develop this technology.

“The focus of ALARP Angel was to create a platform for managing tasks and easily link different technologies throughout the lifecycle of that task.

“We also wanted to make sure we used flexible technology which is just as applicable in other industries, such as oil and gas, nuclear decommissioning, military, or any emergency response where individuals are at risk from potential hazards.

“With the live real-time monitoring, using the connected operator principle taken from the military, a supervisor is able to see inside the environment and inform the operator to ensure they stay safe from any changes which occur.

“Because the environment has been fully characterised, and because the operator has been able to use VR and mock-up environments to rehearse how they will work in the space, any new information in the live environment is kept to a minimum.

“In a high hazard environment the operator may be wearing PPE, or they may be in a noisy or hot environment, so it’s important to allow them to concentrate on carrying out the rehearsed task with minimal distractions. Wearable technology means they can also have simple, easy-to-follow, and well-rehearsed instructions of how to carry out the task on their devices.”

David Clark, Createc’s operations director, said: “Through characterisation, planning and training, the ALARP Angel software enables people to work in a way which minimises risk and optimises efficiency of carrying out tasks.

“It’s about planning tasks and training people to carry out those tasks in a way which is safer, faster and cheaper.

“By using VR technology within the system operators are able to experience the environment and ‘see’ the hazards and rehearse them and learn how best to move around that space.

“It also allows you to train for a series of ‘what if’ scenarios, by rehearsing for different events, so operators are fully trained and able to respond effectively to a range of changing situations without the need to enter the hazardous environment until they are carrying out the task.

“When the task is being carried out, the live real-time monitoring allows operators to be tracked around a facility.

“In a civil nuclear environment ALARP Angel means operators minimise dose time and execute the task in the most efficient way possible.”

The COVID-19 outbreak meant the programme needed to be completed after lockdown, which created an extra challenge for the teams.

Chris said: “With everyone self isolating we had to complete the testing and demonstrating in lockdown while working from home.

“Because both teams work on projects all over the world we are used to using the latest technology to work remotely and we actually finished the final phase ahead of schedule, which is very satisfying.

“The feedback from the Sellafield client has been very positive in what both companies have delivered in terms of value in such a short period of time.”

A demonstration event for the ALARP Angel technology for stakeholders and interested businesses and organisations had had to be postponed due to COVID-19. But plans are in place to hold a virtual demonstration event. In the meantime those interested in the technology can access a video online.

 

matt

Matt Mellor, Managing Director

Matt Mellor started his career as an academic working in research and development at Oxford University where his specialist field was in computer vision and robotics with medical application. But in writing papers, which he says were mainly “read by other academics so they could cite it in their research”, Matt could see there was a vital component missing.

“To turn that research into a product I learned that you have got to make that happen yourself to ensure others recognise the value of it,” said Matt. “That started me on an odyssey to learn about the full process of technological development. That means not just learning about technology, but also about business, people, finance – all the parts you need to make something happen which is going to make a positive change in the world.”

With that in mind, Matt moved to Cumbria and joined REACT Engineering. “REACT put the emphasis on entrepreneurship and I joined the company to apply what I had learned in nuclear medicine to nuclear engineering.” In particular, Matt was able to apply his knowledge in medical imaging to provide smart, technological solutions to the nuclear clean-up industry.

In 2007, Matt was the technical lead in setting up REACT’s own spin-out – aerial surveying company, Hi-Def, which gave him valuable experience of the process involved in setting up a spin-out business. Hi-Def went on to be a sustainable, successful business in its own right and in 2016 became part of the BioConsult SH group. Meanwhile, Matt set up Createc in June 2010, and as CEO has led the company to achieve impressive growth ever since.

Createc started out with just three members of staff – Matt, Alan Shippen and Pete Rodgers. The company’s mission was to create a profitable business out of computer vision and robotics research and development, demonstrating the value such a service adds to industry. Building on technological expertise in the nuclear sector learned from REACT Engineering, Createc developed its N-Visage® technology which went on to be used in the clean-up following the Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan.

Closer to home, Createc used its intellectual property in computer vision to build a business opportunity and set up spin-out company, Sportlight. Earlier this year, it launched a second spin-out from its robotics expertise creating Createc Robotics.

Looking ahead, as society and industry move out of a Covid-19 lockdown, Matt sees robotics playing an ever more important role – but warns those who think it will be an overnight change, to be more patient. “Society has always overestimated what technological development will take place over a two to five-year period. But it has always underestimated what development will take place over 20 years,” said Matt.

“Technological development is an accumulation of small goals which build on top of each other. It creeps forward so that over a 20-year period people then look back and are amazed at how much the world has changed. In 20 years’ time we are going to have a lot more robots, and we will have improved collaboration between human and machine. In some areas that might involve helping to remove people from having to carry out tasks in hazardous environments. In other areas it might be giving people more senses and more capabilities.”

Createc applies its thinking and technologies to any problem to find a solution, and takes a flexible approach when doing so. This means that it can adapt for a range of industries and a range of situations. “We look at the way we can do something, not where we can do it,” said Matt. It’s an approach which has seen its solutions applied in a range of industries and settings, including nuclear and defence, rail and security. Among future growth areas for Createc are heavy engineering, major industrial and general construction.

Createc has received two Queen’s Awards in recent years, one for International Trade and one for Innovation, recognising the company’s success in developing technology. The company is also proud to have won awards for innovation from The Institution for Engineering and Technology (IET), The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

Createc’s strategy as it moves beyond its 10-year anniversary is to concentrate on research and development to launch a series of further spin-out companies. Two things Matt is keen to influence in the wider economy to help support the company’s ambitions are funding and leadership. “We need to make sure that the UK is more start-up friendly. And we need more entrepreneurs who want to come and run these businesses,” said Matt. “To me an entrepreneur takes complete ownership and picks their way forward and proceeds confidently in the face of doubt.”

“We have had a sustained growth rate of 40 per cent, and we are focused on continuing to grow at this rate. In the first ten years we have grown from a company with three people turning over £180,000 to 30 people turning over £3.5m. To sustain that level of growth by the end of the next ten years we would have 300 people turning over more than £60m.”

Matt has a clear vision of how the company will keep driving forward, and his motivation and appetite to lead the company to further success is clear. “My motivation comes from bringing something completely new to life which results in the world being a better place,” he said. “Seeing all the pieces come together and creating this thing which creates an economic benefit and also has a positive impact on the world is really satisfying.”