Wireless tech equips industries to track workers’ safety

and boosts productivity

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Back in the early 1970s, the U.S. Department of Defense was desperate to identify a way for soldiers to inject themselves with an antidote in the event of a nerve gas attack. Drawing up a drug-using conventional syringes and fragile glass vials was impractical. The solution came in the form of an invention which swiftly delivered medication by triggering a spring-loaded mechanism that pushed a needle into a muscle to administer medication. Invented by American Sheldon Kaplan, such was the practicality of the device that it was soon launched onto the commercial market and since 1980 has saved countless lives from anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction. Anaphylaxis is treated with epinephrine, which must be injected promptly by inexperienced users. Kaplan’s EpiPen is the perfect solution.

In early 2020, authorities were desperate for a way to track-and-trace the movement of people stricken with coronavirus to slow the virus’ spread. The solution came in the form of proximity monitoring—initially by leveraging Bluetooth in smartphones but later in purpose designed Bluetooth LE wearables and tags—a technology that enables detection of nearby wireless devices and records interactions for later download and analysis to help track infection.

Over the past 18 months, wherever people and network coverage have come together, an implementation of proximity monitoring technology has mushroomed. Systems have been employed to ensure adherence to social distancing protocols and inform decision making by authorities on issues related to population movement and interaction. The latest global adversity has proven once again that necessity truly is the mother of invention. Now proximity monitoring is set to follow the EpiPen – first designed to mitigate a crisis but such useful technology it has much wider potential. Rigorously tested and proven-in-combat, to what purpose could proximity monitoring be put post-pandemic? How will it prove relevant and beneficial in the workplaces and domestic communities of tomorrow? These are questions being considered by stakeholders on both sides of the geofence, from IoT developers and wireless solutions providers to global industries and start-ups.

POWERING A NEW NORMAL

Proximity monitoring and detection solutions built during the pandemic have served a noble purpose and the world is now on a course to normalcy. And with the SARS-CoV-2 becoming endemic such technology will continue to be vital. But now, the technology offers many advantages for myriad other people- or asset-monitoring applications. Examples include tracking workplace health and safety procedure adherence, reducing the risk of workplace accidents and improving business efficiency and productivity via operational analytics.

Deployments could even stretch to emergency management, attendance automation and automated time-keeping. 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. These are applications that were previously served by unwieldy and clunky technology before a highly infectious disease spurred the world to look at a better way of doing things.

Moreover, from a behavioral perspective, technology first developed for pandemic mitigation will make humans more aware of their actions in relation to others and in avoiding potential risks of sickness or infection from other illnesses such as the common cold or influenza.

A final benefit of proven proximity monitoring technology is that emerging applications can be rapidly deployed because the supporting infrastructure now exists.

One area of concern is that proximity monitoring applications record some personal information – but there is evidence that consumers are willing to cede some privacy if the value of the application is demonstrably beneficial.

BUSINESS REBOOT

Finland-based Wirepas, an IoT technology company and a Nordic Semiconductor partner, is a pioneer in proximity monitoring. The company’s core technology is its proprietary Wirepas Massive connectivity software, a decentralized large scale mesh networking solution designed for a wide array of ‘Massive IoT’ applications. The solution enables smart devices to automatically connect to each other to form a mesh network and find the most efficient route to a gateway. In this advanced setup, every device is continuously capable of multidirectional wireless communication.

According to Youssef Kamel, SVP Ecosystem from Wirepas, post-pandemic industries are rebooting and as a result are realizing there are many operations that need to radically change to reduce business exposure and vulnerability. A key lesson from the pandemic is that the emergence of proximity monitoring technologies has improved efficiency by establishing a safer and more productive workplace for employees.

“Contact tracing [using proximity monitoring] is one of the technologies that allowed employees to return to a safer work environment in a shorter timeframe,” says Kamel. “And now, many managers who used contact tracing systems in the work environment realize the value this technology will bring [across other applications]. “[Familiarity with proximity monitoring] helped build awareness and created more appetite for wireless technologies in other use cases like smart-tracking, -buildings and -factories,” adds Kamel.

An example of this awareness comes from the construction, energy and manufacturing sectors, where ‘digital’ helmets allow workers to dispense with lengthy morning gatherings previously required to check they’ve turned up for work. Moreover, the helmets can ensure compliance with safety guidelines, in turn allowing project managers to remotely monitor the progress of their construction projects and plan accordingly.

A commercial implementation of a digital helmet is WakeCap, which uses a Wirepas software powered network to enable safer working environments and enhance operational efficiency. Wirepas specified Nordic’s nRF52832 Bluetooth LE SoC to power the sensors, the network nodes placed throughput the worksite and the gateways used by the WakeCap wearable, which was developed and brought to market by San Francisco, CA-based WakeCap Technologies.

Designed to overcome the challenge of obtaining accurate visibility of employee flow and equipment location and with no additional worker training or configuration required, WakeCap enables near real time and ‘real motion’ site reporting and information. WakeCap’s analytics compare the onsite work crew timing with staffing and project management plans, highlighting unexpected problems early and avoiding delays or extra costs. For safety, the hard hat mounted sensors track the location of the wearer on a worksite and record any incidents of the hard hat being subjected to force. The decentralized Wirepas Massive network allows each WakeCap hard hat to relay important data forward to another hard hat or anchor node maximizing coverage across a large worksite and reducing the number of anchor nodes or gateways required.

The comprehensive site activity data generated by the wearable includes worker time, location and motion/ shock analytics, and can be relayed via Wirepas Mesh to the Cloud. From there, site management can review the information and actionable insights via the WakeCap Analysis Platform. The platform provides a touchless automated attendance system, social distancing monitoring and contact tracing.

Elsewhere, the pandemic proved the catalyst for three London hospitals to deploy Wirepas’ smart tracking technology to monitor thousands of assets across 90,000 m2 of floor space. The system eased the treatment of sick patients—by, for example, making it simpler and quicker to locate critical equipment such as infusion pumps and oxygen masks as well as key staff—at a time when the system was under huge stress. Now the hospitals have weathered the storm, operational efficiency has been significantly boosted as authorities understand the value of tracking technology and how best to use it.

EMERGING APPLICATIONS

A demonstration of how proximity monitoring is enhancing other wireless technology applications comes from Stratosfy Marker. The firm, which styles itself as a “connected service delivery monitoring company”, is enabling business owners and operations managers to ensure the workforce carries out its activities on time and in the right place. The Canadian company’s Nordic nRF52840 SoC powered solution combines proximity monitoring with mature beacon technology to automatically register the presence of staff when they are close to wall mounted beacons or when they unlock location based task lists. The equipment is used, for example, to ensure all the washrooms at a facility have been regularly attended by the cleaning personnel.

Once the location data has been relayed from the device to the worker’s smartphone, an administrator

or facility manager can monitor the activities being performed at predetermined locations from a proprietary Apple iOS or Android app.

“Stratosfy Marker empowers commercial cleaning contractors [by providing near] real-time, granular and accurate reporting to the level of individual service points at a facility,” explains Madan Kanala, Founder and CEO of Stratosfy.

A second Canadian company, I-SYST, is using Nordic technology to power its BLUEPYRO-M3225 module. The solution provides plug-and-play motion/proximity detection capability, enabling users to quickly set up a system for wireless room occupancy detection for applications such as lighting control, security systems and smart thermostats. The unit cleverly combines both passive infrared (PIR) and proximity monitoring to maximize battery life.

Other proximity monitoring technologies are emerging for personnel tracking applications such as locating and identifying staff on industrial worksites. For example, French developer of wireless sensors and beacons, ELA Innovation, has designed a range of Nordic Bluetooth LE SoC powered wearable beacons. The solution was used to secure an underground construction site in Vancouver. In operation, tags were attached to the helmets of approximately 30 workers descending and ascending a well, with two RFID antennas used to track the whole workforce in near real time. ELA Innovation also partners with Wirepas for mesh networking capabilities.

TAKING THE NEXT STEP

Received Signal Strength Indication (RSSI) has long been exploited as a proxy for distance between two Bluetooth LE devices as a convenient application for locating a misplaced smartphone by using the wireless connectivity built into wearables. But at the outbreak of the pandemic some clever engineers realized that the ubiquity of those smartphones and the dual-mode (Classic Bluetooth plus Bluetooth LE) chips therein formed a ready made infrastructure for contact tracing. With the addition of some simple software, it became relatively straightforward to rapidly deploy a contact tracing system. The solution wasn’t without its flaws—not all handsets have Bluetooth connectivity, it was incumbent on owners of compatible mobiles to download an app and make sure it was activated for the system to work, and there were privacy concerns—but its implementation was a stroke of genius and certainly saved thousands of lives.

Yet contact tracing alone is not the silver lining to the dark clouds of the pandemic. Rather, the real prize comes from the work of those pioneering companies that grasped the full potential of proximity monitoring technology. First, these firms made contact tracing globally available to less developed regions with lower smartphone penetration through low cost Bluetooth LE wearables. And then they worked out how the technology could be applied to other sectors as the world returned to a degree of normalcy.

But things are only just getting started; the products described above represent just the first of what will be a tsunami of proximity monitoring applications. 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.