When the term ‘Internet of Things’ was first coined perhaps a decade ago, the ‘things’ referred to inanimate objects which could be fitted with sensors to transmit data so they could be managed as part of a wider eco-system.
One of the other outcomes from the COVID-19 pandemic disruptions is that the ‘thing’ in IoT can now often refer to a human. It has opened a new field in proximity tracking to promote social distancing and health and safety in workplaces.
Where we might have become used to the novelty of a football player wearing a tracking device during a game so the fans can learn about their speed and distance traveled, with COVID-19 whole workforces and populations are being tracked in an attempt to understand human density in public places better and manage workplace contact.
It is not simply COVID-19, of course. Location-based marketing is also a significant factor, but in a technology sense, it is not unrelated. Many companies are now sending push notifications to users in-store for promotional offers. The retail and transport industries have also used increasingly sophisticated cameras to understand crowd movement and density for planning purposes.
All of this is giving momentum to what is now called the ‘Indoor Location Market,’ which is now expected to grow at better than a compound 20% in the five years to 2026.
More than 40% of the world’s population now have smartphones, which are also sensors. There are an expanding number of applications powered and enabled by beacons and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) tags, the increasing use of beacons in cameras, Light Emitting Diode lighting, at the Point of Sale, and the now ubiquitous QR code. 5G technology is often mentioned in COVID-19 conspiracy theories, but its main benefit lies in enhanced creativity, which can drive these capabilities.
While this pervasiveness has raised issues around data ownership and consumer privacy, some of this has been overlooked in the emergency of the COVID-19 moment. Workers, in particular, are being asked to submit to unprecedented levels of monitoring which is being justified by concerns over health and safety. Many are also agreeing with them.
‘Workforce visibility’ platform
Just as there is a technology platform for just about everything else, there are platforms for ‘workforce visibility.’ One example is U.S. vendor Eyrus, which provides services to the construction industry.
Eyrus uses an IoT beacon that delivers information on worker movements and provides real-time density reports to show how many people are in specific job site areas. Audible and visual alerts are activated when people reach the limits of social distancing protocols.
If someone tests positive for COVID-19, anonymized data can be sent to any nearby worker who needs to be notified. The platform generates reports at the individual and group level, all of which are sent and stored in the cloud.
The benefit is continuity. By accurately identifying any people who have been exposed, they can isolate, and the other workers can continue with peace of mind that they were not exposed.
Aged care homes have been a primary focus of concern during the pandemic, and some of this technology is finding its way in there. Siemens has created ‘Enlightened IoT sensors’, which can be installed in ceiling fixtures that pair with software applications to collect data used to make decisions around occupancy management and asset tracking and management.
In the Asia-Pacific, the Malaysia Automotive Robotics and IoT Institute has developed what it calls the MARii Tracker, which it claims is a “complete solution for contact tracing, social distancing compliance, and location tracking.”
The first implementation was announced in December last year at the country’s Department of Labour skills training institutes.
The MARii Tracker is the equivalent of human IoT, with individuals wearing the devices. Alarms are emitting when two or more dongles come within a proscribed range, and social distancing protocols are breached.
If someone tests positive for the virus, the system can identify areas exposed through a cloud-based dashboard.
These solutions also lead to some exciting collaborations between technology companies. Malaysian network company OCK recently teamed up with Actility – a Low-Power Wide-Area Network IoT provider – and Abeeway, a French company creating geolocation solutions using tracking technologies and smart location.
Their stated goal was to combine their technologies to limit the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces.
The likelihood is that even if the world defeats COVID-19 and goes from pandemic to endemic, this is not the last time the world will face such challenges.
Next time, we will want to be better prepared, and these solutions — given momentum by COVID-19 — can play a role in protecting us in the future.
Lachlan Colquhoun is the Australia and New Zealand correspondent for CDOTrends and the NextGenConnectivity editor. He remains fascinated with how businesses reinvent themselves through digital technology to solve existing issues and change their entire business models. You can reach him at [email protected].
Image credit: iStockphoto/Tzido