The Importance of IoT in a Post Covid-19 World
We are living in unprecedented times. The Coronavirus pandemic has taken many lives and entire populations are slowly coming out of severe lockdown measures to control the spread of the virus. Millions of workers have been furloughed with devastating results for the world economy. Almost a decade worth of growth has been wiped out from the FTSE 100 in the space of a few months.
Some markets have thrived during the pandemic. E-Commerce retailers and online groceries have seen their business boom. With so many people working and socialising from home, demand for video conferencing and faster broadband is increasing exponentially. Manufacturers cannot keep up with the demand for personal protective equipment and perspex screens.
Many industries, however, have been decimated and will take a long time to recover. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, unsurprisingly the Leisure & Hospitality, Wholesale and Retail, Manufacturing and Construction industries have been hit the hardest. BEACH (booking, entertainment, airlines, cruises, and hotels) stocks saw a $332B decline in value during the first month of the pandemic alone as governments restricted travel to over 100 countries*. Sports and concert arenas, cinemas, restaurants, bars and theatres that were empty for three months are now slowly coming back to life.
*Source: Visual Capitalist – Ycharts
So far, not so good, but there has never been such a compelling event for technology companies to innovate, collaborate and deliver IoT solutions to embrace the new normal.
IoT combines connected sensors with automated systems to collect and analyse information to help with a particular task or learn from a process. This will be critical to maximising response times with respect to monitoring the spread and treating the victims of the virus. There is also no industry vertical that will not benefit IoT to reduce the impact Covid-19 has had on businesses and to help get companies back on their feet.
Controlling the Virus and Staying Safe
Every government has faced the monumental task of gathering the data to make informed science-based decisions on how to control the spread of the virus and protect their healthcare systems from being overloaded. According to the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries there are a number of issues in the UK, as an example, which affect the accuracy of data. The daily rate of new admissions of COVID-19 cases is based on a trust catchment population of NHS Trusts reporting numbers each day. The problem with using open data is the full detail is not available to perform data checking and data validation. The number of false positives and false negatives also contribute to the issue.
The world needs to be better prepared to deal with virus outbreaks and the development of an accurate and reliable testing regime is essential. Track and trace testing will require accurate testing devices. Connected thermometers and test kits can be used in hospitals, airports, offices and at public gatherings. Automatic uploading of results to software platforms that can analyse the data using machine learning and AI to remove the element of human error can produce heat maps for real-time disease surveillance to identify and act upon new clusters of infections.
Facilities managers are already seeing the operational benefits and cost savings from IoT sensors. Many of these use cases could be repurposed to make the building environment safer. For example, occupancy monitors can optimize working spaces and monitor if social distancing guidelines are being adhered to. Smart hand wash dispensers not only alert when they need to be refilled, they also provide useful data on frequency of use for monitoring hand hygiene. Air quality and humidity sensors can provide a dashboard for ensuring the building is a Coranavirus safe environment.
Distribution of Pharmaceuticals
Vaccines require temperature-controlled environments from production, through distribution and to their destination to maintain their full effectiveness. Huge advances are being made in logistics tracking as IoT LPWAN technologies allow devices with battery lives of 5 to 10 years to not only track trailers and containers but also cost effectively track crates and roll cages throughout the supply chain. Cold chain monitoring and tamper detection of trailers allow pharmaceutical suppliers to safely deliver their goods and this will soon be enhanced by IoT technologies that allow the production of stick-on smart labels that can monitor individual packages of medicines for temperature fluctuations and alerting if an individual box has been tampered with.
Every industry vertical can benefit from IoT to enable companies to run more efficiently and keep both staff and customers safe. Take the airline industry, struggling with the impact that social distancing will have on its business, as an example. Many airlines and aviation services company have already announced job losses and more will follow. There is much that IoT can do to streamline the handling of passengers and luggage both on the ground and in the air. For example, remote monitoring of ground support equipment used to service the aircraft between flights including ground power operations, aircraft mobility, and cargo/passenger loading operations. Knowing where equipment is and if it is in a fit state of operation will ease the pressure on a reduced services workforce. Tracking of Universal Load Devices will ensure that luggage goes to its intended destination. Wireless enabled smart labels could also be used on individual luggage items to further improve tracking efficiency through the entire baggage handling process.
The retail and hospitality industries have faced a real challenge to adapt to the new social distancing policies. It’s difficult to operate profitably with a reduced customer base, especially after several months of zero revenue and the additional costs of remodelling their premises. IoT will be vital in terms of optimizing the process including occupancy sensors that can automatically monitor and control footfall in and out of shops, bars and restaurants, digital signage to inform shoppers of goods and prices and smart payment solutions all aimed at keeping things moving swiftly, maintaining safe distances and maximizing spend. Difficulty in predicting demand as countries gently ease out of lockdown means that retailers will have to optimize their supply chains and stock control systems and will be made even more difficult with potential localized lockdowns until a vaccine is available.
As factories start to ramp up, the manufacturing industry will need to lower costs and streamline their operations whilst ensuring employee safety and security. Automating and pro-actively monitoring machinery to extend maintenance cycles and monitoring waste can have a dramatic impact on costs. Many manufacturers have little or no visibility of up to 10% of materials and parts in transit resulting in increased Capex due to the need to overstock when items go missing and additional Opex costs to recover. Sensors can be used to provide greater visibility across inbound and outbound logistics by tracking Returnable Industrial Packaging, enhanced by AI to optimise and further strip out costs.
Connectivity – One Size Will Not Fit All
So, how do we get the data from multiple sensors, some static, some moving, in internal and external environments? The IoT wireless landscape is broad with a range of network connectivity options. Each network has its own unique set of attributes in terms of data bandwidth, latency and range. Each use case has its own unique requirements in terms of cost, data rate, form factor, provisioning and power consumption. Collecting data from remote sensors requires some thought to select the right connectivity option and one size clearly does not fit all.
This can be illustrated by considering the connectivity requirements for three of the key use cases in the post Covid-19 world.
Making buildings safe: In the building case, most of the sensors transmit status or event-based messages with low data requirements. Latency is important but not critical. Sensors will typically not have a mains power source so a long battery life will be required. LPWAN technologies are the ideal fit but what if higher data payloads or video monitoring are required? Most buildings will have Wi-Fi but managing usernames and passwords for sensors connecting to Wi-Fi routers in an uncontrolled environment is problematic and Wi-Fi will also significantly reduce battery life so cellular may be a better option for sensor devices requiring a higher data bandwidth.
Tracking of pharmaceuticals: There are levels of granularity in asset tracking. In some cases geofencing is sufficient to understand if a vehicle containing a consignment is generally where it should be (distribution centre, pharmacy, hospital). In other cases GPS tracking of the vehicle in transit is required. The presence of a power source on the trailer reduces the need for battery-only operated devices so cellular connectivity can be used but a power efficient LPWAN network may be required for trailers without a power source. LAN technologies can be used at building waypoints and satellite connectivity may be required for trucks travelling outside the coverage footprint of cellular and LPWAN networks. Tracking of pharmaceutical packages using smart labels takes it to the next level and needs a much cheaper, potentially disposable sensor device that can locate, track and monitor packages for temperature and tampering in real time.
Optimising manufacturing: Equipping factories with IoT sensors is a bit of a mixed bag. Modern machines have interfaces that can be used to connect to sensor devices to monitor and control but older machines require sensors that can derive the status of the machine from, for example, temperature and vibration. Cellular and LPWAN coverage inside factories can often be marginal but most facilities have managed Wi-Fi access allowing sensor devices to be deployed throughout. RFID tags have typically been used to track high value assets moving in and out of the factory but this does not facilitate external tracking thus requiring WAN connectivity.
The perfect scenario would be a universal radio chipset/modem that can connect to any wireless technology at the lowest hardware cost but that’s just not realistic. The cost of single RF technology chipsets/modems varies enormously depending on the wireless technology. Even with volumes of scale, a multi-technology solution would blow many cost sensitive IoT use cases out of the water. Despite the hype that IoT requires a one size fits all connectivity, multiple RF technologies will continue to co-exist and, rather than connectivity providers trying to make a land grab, solution providers and system integrators need to understand the pros and cons of each and choose wisely.
Which IoT Platform?
Managing the data received from an ecosystem of sensor devices from different manufacturers via multiple wireless technologies is not a simple task. There are 620 IoT platforms on the market, an increase of 170 in less than three years. A confusing array of choices although the top 10 providers have 58% market share.
Each platform provider offers different functionality; device management and diagnostics, connectivity management, data reporting and analysis and each has a different pricing policy based on data volume, number of users, data analysed centrally or at the edge which makes choosing the right platform difficult. Solution providers and system integrators need to take a considered approach to choosing the platform that fits the use case and best integrates with the customer’s IT and OT systems.
According to IoT Analytics, customers have nine common platform-specific purchasing criteria. The three top criteria are:
1. End-2-end security (i.e. how secure the platform is including the data exchange and user and device authentication)
2. Scalability (i.e. how easy it is to go from 100 to 100,000 connected endpoints)
3. Usability (i.e. how user friendly the interface is)
is important to determine the trade-offs and choose a platform before starting a proof of concept. Is security the key issue? Is interoperability important to be able to handle multiple device suppliers? Does the platform need to be able to manage more than one type of wireless connectivity? Better to start off on the right foot rather than having to compromise or change direction down the line.
Breaking the Proof of Concept Cycle
A plethora of sensors, devices, connectivity and platform options has manifested in a cycle of trials and proofs of concepts in order for businesses to quantify the return on investment for their specific IoT use cases. So many fail in a mire of data collected to satisfy the requirements of multiple stakeholders that no-one knows how to make sense of. Yes, some use cases have unique requirements but there is only so much data that is really meaningful and there are many solutions that have been tried and tested for similar use cases that could be easily adapted with minor adjustments.
We are facing a compelling need during the Covid-19 pandemic to restart economies and we need to move much faster than we have in the past. Many solutions can be repurposed to shorten the time to market. For example, the data from smart handwash dispensers in commercial buildings that is used to check when dispensers need to be refilled can be combined with data from washroom door sensors to understand the usage pattern as part of a wider hygiene monitoring program. Data from air quality, temperature, humidity, movement and desk occupancy sensors can help facilities managers to optimize buildings to provide a safer environment for office workers. Why reinvent the wheel when the building blocks are potentially already there.
Start with the Problem not the Solution
All countries will face the same challenges, but we must take a look around the world to learn and apply. Asia has much experience of dealing with virus outbreaks and has a rich source of track and trace data that can be used to enhance IoT solutions aimed at controlling the spread. Many of the Covid-19 deaths in Europe were related to the elderly, care homes and those with underlying health conditions. Solutions aimed at protecting the vulnerable will be vital. Africa has high levels of malnutrition and disease that makes Covid-19 even more deadly. The use of IoT to improve farming and agriculture and make hospitals more efficient will be key in the long run.
IoT will have an important role to play in controlling the spread of Coronavirus, maintaining a safe environment for people and restarting the economy but industry will need to be pragmatic. It’s not about pushing technology, it’s about understanding society and industry’s pain points, innovating where necessary and applying what already works. All parties need to be open and to work together on a journey of discovery for the greater good of a world coming to terms with the new normal.
Kevin Maher is an independant telecom consultant with more than thirty years experience, specialising in the IoT industry. He is also an associate partner in the Solutionheads network.