ISA Automation Week 2012: Innovation in Orlando

I'm not usually much of a Disney fan. The characters from Snow White onward were fantastic, but they were almost always pure good or all bad. Unfortunately, this black-and-white ethos always seemed kind of flat and artificial, like early Superman or DC comics or Lawrence Welk's robotic performers. I always leaned towards more fleshed-out characters like Bugs Bunny, Spider-Man, Oscar the Grouch or Bart Simpson, who exemplified the world's negatives as well as its positives, and seemed a lot more human to me. Plus, I didn't appreciate Uncle Walt's busting some of his best artists to the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee for trying to unionize in the 1950s. Heck, even Epcot is 30 years old and the Little Mermaid is 23 years old, so I'm rooting for Pixar's cast to keep breathing new life into Disney as a whole.

So, I was encouraged by the opening keynote at ISA Automation Week 2012 on Sept. 25 at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. Greg Hale, PE, chief safety officer at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, presented "Automation in Our World,” which charted many of its efforts to use automation and process control at its theme parks, and the unexpected paths its engineers have followed as a result.

Hale began by reporting that Walt Disney's constructed Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., because he wanted to transform his animated films into an even more immersive experience, and this vision grew into the growing number of parks the company runs and is building worldwide, especially in China. However, "park' may be the wrong word because each huge site is more like a city with many facilities requiring all kinds of process controls, safety components, and vast quantities of goods and raw materials. For instance, Orlando's own Walt Disney World encompasses 27,000 acres and is as big as San Francisco or two Manhattan islands, and is staffed by 65,000 "cast members,” who take 200,000 mass transit trips per day. "Our attendance dwarfs that of all other theme parks combined, and so to achieve required capacity and throughput, we sometimes have two to four rides operating in one site,” explains Hale. "It's not well known, but Space Mountain is actually two intertwined roller coasters running in the same space. Likewise, we also operate brake zones between sections of many rides, and this allows us to run four or five sets of ride vehicles at once to increase capacity."

For example, the Big Grizzly Mountain ride at the California Adventure park in Anaheim includes 460 sensors that monitor position and speed, and these perform safety checks 20 times per second. Hale works with a 5,000-member maintenance cast that performs thousands of pre-opening checks and maintenance tasks each day, which are all scheduled and tracked by Maximo software. Similarly, an automated maintenance verification system (AMVS) monitors and displays equipment status in real-time, while RFID chips in many rides work with interlocks to call out vehicles when they exceed their allowed number of laps.

Hale reports another innovative program began when Disney World sought to improve the park's immersive experience for its handicapped guests. About 10 years ago, it developed and offered handheld HMIs to display captions for deaf guests, and then devised another handheld with audio descriptions for blind guests. These proprietary devices allow each group to experience more of the "stories" that go along with each ride and other attractions in the park. The handhelds use a combination of Bluetooth, WiFi, global positioning, radio and Disney's own SyncLink technology to cue up the right caption or audio based on each user's location. More recently, Disney began offering similar handhelds in five languages, and inserted the same components into its Pal Mickey and new Glow Ears toys, so young children can enjoy the same dialog with their families.

Of course, many industrial plants and manufacturers could likely make use of the same or similar interfaces. And, Hale adds, 15 national parks, George Washington's Mount Vernon, the Coke Museum, Dallas Cowboys Stadium and the National Safety Council have already licensed Disney's handheld technology.

"We try to pursue innovation in our world, but we've learned that each of us can make a difference in everyone's world," says Hale, who also sits on the board of FIRST Robotics, which has held several of its national events for high school and elementary students at Disney World. "You engineers are the rock stars of these technologies, and can help the next generation get inspired by them." What did I tell you? Another happy Disney ending.