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LEVERAGING TECHNOLOGY TO SUPPORT SOCIAL DISTANCING

Updated: May 15

By Alex Wyczalkowski, InSite Director



Introduction


How can we use technology to help utilize built-environment space while keeping people safe? The goal when we relax current shelter-in-place shutdowns is to make sure every occupant is healthy and safe from potential infection while allowing businesses to open again. This means social distancing: six feet of separation between occupants, along with measures to keep contagious people isolated. A wealth of technology already exists in the market that’s ready to plug and play, helping building managers to safely open-up their spaces. Many companies are working on the next level of technology that can further protect building occupants.


The importance of continued social distancing


Images from hospitals in places like Italy and New York City have been harrowing. Front line responders risk their health and lives to help the sick. As we proceed in opening-up our economy we do so with these people in mind, along with high-risk populations, some who have no way of isolating themselves while staying afloat: grocery shopping, paying bills, etc.


Epidemiologists largely agree that with social distancing we’ve “flattened the curve”, allowing essential services and hospitals to stay functional while caring for those who have fallen ill. And while the curve may have peaked in some parts of the country what lies ahead of us is still largely unknown. Reports from Western European countries further along in the pandemic report gradual but slow decreases in key recovery metrics like new daily cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. This implies that any progression back to an opened-up society must be done with the utmost caution, in order to prevent a second spike in cases, whether it be this summer or fall. We face this challenge while recognizing the need for a functioning economy, one that can allow workers to produce goods and services to feed their families and pay their bills.

Building occupancy and technology


With this understanding of the challenges we face, building managers tread carefully but determinedly to allow the sorts of in-person interactions that make our country a world leader in innovation and technology. As such, we have technology on the market today that can help people to safely go back to work and enter indoor environments.


Before buildings open back up again, building managers should be working diligently to get their buildings physically ready. As Justin Lee explained in his latest Industry Insight, building operators need to bring facilities back into operation by validating ventilation and other critical systems.


Social distancing guidelines dictate how people will interact within built environments in the near term. First, occupancy will be capped at levels well below what was acceptable a few short months ago. Building managers are tasked with enforcing these occupancy limits. A simple solution provided by companies like SenSource is a directional occupancy counter with a heads-up display. Using an occupancy sensor with directional signaling, such sensors count occupants passing in and out of a doorway. The heads-up display alerts occupants and customers whether they may enter. Networking together multiple sensors at different entrances easily keeps a tally of total occupants in a way that may be difficult or unsafe for a single employee to manage.


Once within a building, individual spaces may also have requirements around maximum occupancy. Another easy to implement, wireless solution, are sensors that count Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals from computers and smartphones. Companies like Occuspace provide a product that’s easy to install with just an electrical outlet and an existing Wi-Fi network. Such a plug and play solution allows a building or office manager to quickly and cheaply monitor occupancy in a defined space.


Thermal imaging cameras can detect occupants who have fevers, a common symptom of viral infections. This solution has been deployed in a few buildings with some success to date. Simply placing a thermal camera with an employee checking for high temperatures on faces can provide an extra layer of security for building occupants.


The future of occupancy technology


Much technology exists that can take occupancy solutions even further but have yet to find a neat plug-and-play service in the market. With companies quickly innovating to meet surging demand, building managers may not need to wait much longer.


As mentioned earlier, current thermal imaging solutions still require the use of human intervention to observe a thermal image. Applying a software solution to such a thermal camera can remove the human element, allowing for a much higher rate of traffic while minimizing the risk of infection for employees. A better medical solution would be to test the internal body temperature. This would require the development of a physical product that could quickly test individuals in a sanitary way.


Occupancy sensing technology will get more granular, eventually to the point of assisting personal social distancing: the six-foot rule. An end-to-end solution that alerts when the six-foot barrier is breached would be a gold standard in social distancing. Much of the technology already exists, but it would need to be applied specifically for the social distance use case.


One solution is to use visual cameras. With existing software, cameras can easily identify humans from other moving objects and triangulate the distance between individuals. Adding a chirp function to a camera or connected speaker would alert occupants that they’ve broken the six-foot rule.


Alternatively, leveraging existing Bluetooth technology can accomplish the same goal, with less concern over privacy. Wireless Bluetooth beacons emit a low energy signal that can be identified by another Bluetooth device, like a smartphone, when it is in range. Such a solution would require each occupant to wear the Bluetooth beacon while on-site, as well as download an app to their smartphone. When the phone detects another beacon, a vibration or signal alerts the person they’re too close.


Conclusion


Building managers face a large challenge in the near term. The need to open buildings back up needs to be balanced with keeping occupants safe. Building operators can leverage technology such as occupancy sensors and thermal imaging to accomplish this goal. Many products on the market today allow for tight occupancy control within spaces. In the near future, the available technology will get even better, allowing for tighter social distance alerting and occupant safety.

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