By Dimitrios Spiliopoulos | 2nd June 2020
After months of extreme uncertainty, pause of economies and isolation in our homes, finally economies slowly restart their operations and transactions. However, this transition will not be smooth. There are many rules related to physical distance and hygiene as well as limitations which still force employers to ask their employees to work from home (for months). Of course, these rules are more than necessary so we can avoid the second wave of the pandemic, but there are some key concerns for companies and employees. For example:
- How can companies can start offering their services, while fewer employees are allowed at work?
- How can customers or employees operate out of their safe home with confidence, without touching surfaces and keeping distance from each other?
Working for years in tech and being specialised in how the Internet of Things (IoT) as an enabler can help cities and companies improve their processes and products, I thought to write a high level summary of how IoT can help get control of their destiny and offer safe and relevant services, keeping also safe their employees. To begin with, IoT is a network of connected devices that can communicate with each other, exchange data and provide automation of tasks. We can use IoT to sense (collect data through sensors) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to make sense out of this data. The new name of this convergence is the AI of Things (AIOT). Needless to say, to achieve the full potential of IoT and AI a combination with other emerging technologies may be required in certain cases, like edge computing, digital twin, augmented/virtual reality (AR, VR), and drones.
We can all agree that there are three main themes (needs) until we find the new vaccine for covid-19. These themes are:
- Work from home (or do everything from a safe place)
- Physical distance
- Contactless transactions
IoT and AI can serve all these three needs very well. Let’s explore how:
Work from home
IoT can really help with remote condition monitoring and management of assets, which means that you can connect in the internet your assets, machines, products (ie fridges in a retail stores, inventory management systems, machines in the factory, smart city furniture, etc.) and monitor their performance remotely, just from a laptop at home. No need to send people physically checking the location and function of the machines. Companies from almost any industry should start exploring areas where they can automate processes and decide accordingly the soonest possible. I see this urgent need for manufacturers, retailers, logistics, constructions, maintenance providers of machines or infrastructure and even cities, hospitals and airports. Companies that had implemented already IoT enabled solutions are relying extensively on them achieving transparency, real-time tracking, safety and meeting government compliance.
Companies can start with simple steps of monitoring their assets. Later they can also add predictive (or prescriptive) analytics in order to be able to identify early when an issue is developing in a machine and solve it before being too late. Moving from a reactive approach to a more proactive mindset can save lots of time and budget. For example, instead of sending technicians to fix a big issue immediately, you can predict and avoid issues or schedule maintenance when there are less people around (idle time). If you want to become even more efficient, you can combine IoT with virtual reality or augmented reality capabilities in order to have better visibility of everything.
A very good use case is to give workers at the field access to high level of expertise (technical/domain) by receiving detailed guidance from experts who are just at their home. In addition, by using the tools of remote monitoring and predictive maintenance a company can also become paperless (great for hygiene, apart from efficiency), have valuable insights about how products and machines are used (useful for identifying niche services and markets, or product improvements). Overall, you can have all this collected data from multiple machines in a central system of information, which you can visualise, share and create actionable insights.
Similar concepts can be applied also for monitoring the health and work of workers, in sectors like constructions, energy, hospitals, etc. where health, safety and efficiency are even more critical. Aggregated and anonymised data can be very useful also for the national healthcare systems, so they can measure the impact of their decisions during the ease of lockdown, etc. Data privacy concerns should be analysed thoroughly though. Everything we discussed for work from home can help the company in many ways also after the end of the pandemic. That’s why the employees must be at the centre of each design thinking process, asking them for feedback, consensus and active involvement from the beginning.
Unfortunately, there are many jobs that cannot be done without being present, like builders in construction, some workers in factories, in farms, retail stores or in transportation services. In almost every country, even if the strict lockdown is relaxed, the need for two metres physical distance from each other is more important than ever. Governments will try to force this either as guidance or even as a rule, making it a strict condition for businesses to restart operations. Besides, the remote services that I described above for work from home are really helping companies to reduce the number of employees at the field, creating the right conditions for physical distance. Apart from this though, there are also some additional IoT enabled solutions in the market.
In controlled environments where we know who the employees are and where each one should be, a way to monitor and try to ensure the physical distance is through wearables. For example, smart watches, smart belts, helmets, or even smart clothes and shoes can give location data and context about where the workers are and how successful are the applied measures for physical distance and safety. The wearable could even create a simple warning (soft sound/vibration) to the worker when he/she has less than two meters distance. Some of these wearables can also help to identify if any employee has high fever or stress. As a result, managers can take data driven measures and decisions which will be for the benefit of the employee health and their productivity. Of course, all these measures should aim to support the employees and not to penaltise them, otherwise the results of these measures will be very concerning.
Some more advanced companies are considering even to use drones to inspect if workers keep distance, if someone has fever and the progress of the work. We expect to see the drones mainly in agriculture, constructions, oil and gas and mining. In Asia drones are used in the cities as well, but I wouldn’t expect to see them soon in other continents (maybe in the US) due to several privacy concerns.
We all know that covid-19 can stay for hours on surfaces, so out of our home we have to struggle to not touch anything. How can IoT and AI help with this issue? Of course, the technologies that support work from home and track distance can also help with contactless transactions as many tasks and processes can be automated.
The concept of smart buildings is maybe one of the best examples of how IoT can help with contactless interactions in a closed environment (building). The simplest use case is with the smart lights where you don’t need to touch with your finger the switches as they turn on when they sense movement. With smart lights, like with other motion-activated sensors, companies and cities can also save lots of energy and budget. The data from the lights can also allow better building management during the pandemic (and after), making the return of investment even more attractive. Furthermore, with room occupancy sensors and smart locks/access controls, it is possible to restrict access to certain areas if there are too many people.
Another good use cases in the buildings could be from adjusting automatically the temperature per room to managing indoor humidity levels to minimise the survival rate of viruses. Another important use case is making sure that windows are open and the HVAC system is adjusting accordingly improving the air we breathe, without touching surfaces or remotes.
In addition to automation through IoT, the use of voice-activated applications is another way to promote contactless interactions. Smart speakers like Alexa and Google are becoming popular at homes, but we will see this concept also in commercial buildings. More and more manufacturers of office or public facilities are incorporating voice command capabilities in their operations, like in smart elevators, coffee machines, vending machines and other devices. Connecting these machines and adding voice capabilities can create new opportunities for advertisement and brand engagement as well as enable remote maintenance as discussed previously.
A quite new application in the Western world that can offer contactless experience is the face recognition, which is quite used in Asia. This topic is very sensitive though as it is related to personal data and how this data can be used. However, in my opinion in controlled environments where the users/visitors are standard and known already, like in corporate offices, schools, and universities, it can be very useful for access control applications instead of asking people to touch buttons, or trying to find their ID card for scanning creating queuing. Overall, it seems that the vision for contactless experience is feasible and while companies try to achieve this, they can take advantage of additional benefits like cost reductions, energy efficiency, data insights and better services.
In summary, the Internet of Things is not anymore a technology of the future and it can really help organisations today to come back to full business stronger than ever. IoT and AI enabled applications can help companies and cities automate processes, track and manage assets from home and create contactless user experience. For even better results and insights, you can later combine it with other technologies like digital twins, AR, VR, and drones. In addition to the Covid-19 health and safety solutions, IoT can improve also sales, cost efficiency and sustainability. We already see acceleration in digital transformation projects due to covid-19 as companies try to adjust to the circumstances of the pandemic.
IoT together with AI are key enablers of this digital transformation. We know that the journey of digital transformation is not easy, but it is necessary to start it and grab the opportunities. A final point to remember is that the above IoT and AI solutions are not useful just during the pandemic, but also beyond.