Wireless technology commercialized to fight COVID-19 is adapted to improve safety and productivity as employees return to work.
Wireless proximity monitoring proved to be a crucial tool in containing the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the dark days before vaccines. At the pandemic outbreak, clever engineers realized that the Bluetooth tech built into smartphones formed a ready-made infrastructure for contact tracing.
The solution wasn't perfect. People needed Bluetooth-equipped handsets with the right app for the system to work, but its implementation was a stroke of genius and certainly saved thousands of lives. Later came purpose-designed Bluetooth LE wearables and tags to detect nearby wireless devices and record interactions to help contact-trace during COVID-19 outbreaks.
As the disease has become endemic, proximity monitoring will continue to be vital. Better still, we have a proven technology with supporting infrastructure on our hands that can use for many other people-tracking and asset-monitoring applications. Examples include tracking workplace health and safety procedures, reducing the risk of workplace accidents, and improving business efficiency and productivity.
The unexpected benefits of pandemic technology
These are just the obvious applications. There are numerous other possibilities. Existing technology could stretch to emergency management, attendance tracking, and automated timekeeping.
Industries as diverse as manufacturing, food processing, education, the military, and even film production could benefit from technology that accurately tracks the interaction of groups of people and provides insights into their behavior.
There were some solutions to these problems before COVID-19, but they were served by unwieldy, clunky, and often proprietary technologies. The virus provided the encouragement to explore a better way of doing things.
Part of the answer was to adopt proven and open wireless technologies to solve problems – demonstrating once again how the flexibility of wireless connectivity and its large vendor ecosystem allows application to almost any engineering challenge.
Wireless technology is changing people’s behavior
Not just has the technology. People’s attitudes have changed too. Humans are more aware of their interpersonal relations, avoiding potential risks of sickness or infection from other illnesses, such as the common cold or influenza (“flu”).
One consequence of this new behavior is a dramatic decline in flu infections. In Australia, the Immunisation Coalition reported over 313,000 cases in 2019. That number dropped to 21,356 in 2020. By the end of October 2021 (well past the peak for the traditional Southern Hemisphere flu season), recorded cases were only 584.
Moreover, there is evidence that people's privacy concerns soften with assurances that any information collected is for the common good, anonymized, and deleted when no longer needed. There is a lesson here for all vendors asking for personal data.
Getting back to work with wireless technology
Commercial examples of proximity monitoring are appearing as people return to offices, factories, and building sites; Finland-based Wirepas, a Nordic customer, has introduced ‘digital’ helmets which enable workers to dispense with the morning attendance meetings. The helmets can also ensure compliance with safety guidelines and help managers remotely monitor the progress of building projects.
Companies are also using technology to ensure that employees returning to the office have a more pleasant experience. The Business Times reports that in Schneider Electric's offices in Kallang, Singapore, more than a thousand sensors across nine floors track the occupancy of workstations to help the company adapt lighting and HVAC according to attendance.
Extending proximity monitoring
Moreover, smart buildings that monitor air quality and adjust ventilation to suit are increasingly common. A 2011 Danish study reported that people working in conventional open plan premises take 62 percent more sick leave than those working in an enclosed workspace. Keeping the air fresher and cleaner will help reduce that figure in the future.
Contact tracing remains important, especially in areas of the world where vaccination rates remain low. Several companies, for example, CareBand, have made contact tracing more widely available to those without smartphones through low-cost Bluetooth LE wearables.
Driving the technology will be the new applications of proximity monitoring. Now that engineers have got their hands on this fledgling technology, they will come up with thousands of applications that we can't even begin to guess at.