In an attempt to distract you from COVID (yes I said it, the C-word), this blog has nothing to do with Coronavirus (I’ve done it again), pandemics or the politics of vaccination programmes (ooo! we’re on thin ice now; before you know it I’ll mention the EU, Brexit (the B-word) and we’ll never get it back on track).
Living virtually with new (and old) technology
I’ve been running a lot of Live Online courses over the best part of a year now. I actually wrote about Live Online in a recent blog.
In that blog I mentioned that I had been involved in the very early days of real-time interactive virtual classroom teaching (or Live Online as it is called now). These courses were all one day revision workshops involving just a handful of people. At the time, modern virtual meeting rooms like Zoom didn’t exist so each workshop involved a telephone conference, sharing documents on screen, with a ‘chat’ function to allow for text discussions to take place.
This rather experimental offering ended in disaster. On the day in question I was trying to get the workshop going, which was proving difficult because the students were based overseas. The telephone conference functionality was barely functional at all. As a matter of fact, I seem to remember a lot of “Hello Robert, are you there?” going on. Likewise, the screen-sharing was proving equally recalcitrant. Also, company firewalls were preventing students from accessing web pages and the chat function. As a result, this techno-chaos delayed the proper start of the workshop by about an hour. If I hadn’t been struck in the middle of the maelstrom I would have thought it hilarious. But I was, so it wasn’t. Instead it was just very stressful.
We’d just got going properly when I heard what sounded like a series of gun-shots outside my office window. I was working at home (no change there then) and my office overlooks my neighbour’s field. I could see bright electrical flashes zipping up and down the overhead power cables that were strung on poles along the border of the field. Sparks were shooting everywhere and loud bangs and crackles were sounding. It was a very windy day and the ash trees in the field boundary were blowing into the overhead cables causing the cables to rub together. It was spectacular, if a little unnerving. Then with a final shower of sparks one of the cables parted company from the transformer box on one of the poles and fell to the ground. All power lost. Lights out. PC dead. Phone dead.
I’ve got an old telephone which doesn’t need mains power for just such emergencies. So I plugged it in to get a line to headquarters to report the situation. In the end we decided that enough was enough and we would abandon the workshop for that day. And it never ran again.
Ah the joys of rural Devon.
Anyway, the reason for this trip down memory lane is that today I was sitting in my office at home AGAIN (think Groundhog Day but without any of the funny bits, or Andie MacDowell) when a bight yellow helicopter with “Electricity” emblazoned on the side and a nice bulbous camera pod flew by at very low level following the line of the high voltage overhead power lines adjacent to the house. It was a nice, leisurely, low-level run.
“Must be doing some sort of line inspection.” I thought. And sure enough, a quick google threw up this: https://www.westernpower.co.uk/business-services/helicopter-unit
Western Power Distribution is the company responsible for the installation and upkeep of the power network. In fact, I’ve run a few courses in WPD over time. I’ve also blogged about electricity a bit, though I should point out that it’s not my industry, I’m just an interested geek.
Of course I’ve had to teach about electricity as a hazard on various general H&S courses and at Diploma level. During these courses I’ve often used a great video that shows work on overhead cables using a helicopter for access. Not a job for the faint-hearted (figuratively, and literally I suspect)!
However, this isn’t what WPD were doing. They were probably carrying out a line inspection in preparation for some pole replacement and cable restringing work. Since then lots of piles of material have started appearing locally and several old poles have been taken out and replaced.
Droning on and on
This got me thinking that the use of helicopters must have seemed like a significant innovation back in 1963 when the service first started. Today, however, it seems a bit old-fashioned with the advent of drone technology (or unmanned aerial vehicles). These are now routinely being used commercially for inspection purposes on power lines, wind turbines, pipelines, etc. For example, see https://balmoreuav.co.uk/powerline-inspection/.
They’re faster, cheaper, safer.
And, as you might imagine, use of drones in this capacity is regulated (see https://www.shponline.co.uk/legislation-and-guidance/drone-users-face-new-rules-across-europe-and-uk/).
The problem is you’re replacing a skilled helicopter pilot with a skilled drone pilot. And a skilled inspector with a skilled inspector. So you are still in the hands of skilled people. This means all of the potential for human error that that entails (see here for more info on human error). It also means the limitations of the human eye and brain when it comes to image analysis and data interpretation.
New Technology is Sexy
How much better would it be if you could turn the data collection over to an autonomous drone? And the data analysis over to a computer? Enter the world of autonomous drones, beyond visual line of site operations, artificial intelligence and machine learning.
And for a very sexy video showing what a vertical take-off and landing drone can do. Yes I did say sexy! Probably just me.:
And this for an idea of the analysis and imagery:
With the increasing use of AI in many sectors and industries it seems to me to be only a matter of time before HSE professionals are replaced in much the same way as cottage industry textile and agricultural workers were replaced in the industrial revolution in 18th and 19th century Britain. That revolution involved the replacement of physical labour by machine labour.
Recently I was reading a BBC News article about the use of “Deepfake” technology for the presentation of information, instruction and training courses. It is now possible to create a very realistic avatar and have them present any info you like in any language. I suspect in a few years time there won’t be many real people doing what I do. As I said to a colleague recently, I may well be one of the last generation of full-time professional trainers teaching what are, essentially, knowledge-based courses.
To the future
If the thought that a machine might replace you at work fills you with dread, or even a mild sense of curiosity, then I recommend that you read “To Be a Machine” by Mark O’Connell. It’s got nothing to do with occupational health and safety except in the very broadest sense that it does indicate the direction of travel of various technologies that may have a future impact. One of the technologies mentioned in the book is autonomous robots. Boston Dynamics robots (see here) are already being used in high hazard industrial environments for inspection and data gathering purposes.
O’Connell’s book does make for quite unsettling reading. Fans of the author Iain M Banks (and yes, that would include me, see here for the proof) will find a lot of familiar themes in the book; mind substrates, uploading, self-modification, cryopreservation, etc. The notable difference being that Banks was writing as a science fiction author about cultures in the far flung future. Whereas O’Connell is writing as a reporter about the same technologies as they exist in the here and now.
Who needs an OHS professional when Spot the robot dog can do the on-site inspection and upload the data to an AI that can give you tailored advice in the blink of an eye?
This future might be closer than you think.
And finally Ronnie…
…Well it took your mind off the C-word and the B-word for a while didn’t it?
Dr Jim Phelpstead BSc, PhD, CMIOSH
RRC Consultant Tutor