Market Insight

IoT set to play a growing role in COVID-19 response

April 01, 2020


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Its undeniable that technology is helping get us through the unprecedented measures that have been put in place in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Downloads and the use of workplace collaboration tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack have increased dramatically and are allowing companies to retain some semblance of order in today’s unique environment. At the same time, social media and video calling services like FaceTime are allowing families to stay connected despite complete physical isolation in many locations. Along a similar thread, video streaming services are providing some form of entertainment and a much-needed break from the news.

Even more importantly, technology is playing a growing role in helping authorities prevent further spread of COVID-19, while also treating those that are unfortunately infected. IoT, in particular and especially when combined with other transformative technologies like Cloud and AI, has seen use in a wide range of applications during the crisis.

Some notable examples of this include:

  • Connected thermometers are being used by hospitals (and at other public locations) to screen patients and staff. Kinsa Health has used data gathered from its over one million connected thermometers to produce daily maps showing which US counties are seeing an increase in high fevers. (According to World Health Organization high fever is the most common symptom of COVID-19.) These data points are capable of providing unparalleled real-time disease surveillance and could serve as an early warning sign of new clusters of the disease.
  • Connected wearables are playing an important role too. Patients and staff at a field hospital in Wuhan, China wore bracelets and rings synced with an AI platform from CloudMinds’—an operator of cloud-based systems for intelligent robots—to provide constant monitoring of vital signs, including temperature, heart rate and blood oxygen levels. The government of Hong Kong is using electronic tracker wristbands to alert authorities when individuals—specifically those recently arrived from international destinations—do not comply with compulsory home quarantines. And on the more unusual side, a team of entrepreneurs have developed a smart wristband that vibrates if the person wearing it tries to touch his or her face, an action which health authorities have cited as being a lead cause of the virus spread.
  • Robots are being used to alleviate the stress on healthcare workers and assist in treatment of patients. The best example of this to date comes from the previously mentioned field hospital in Wuhan, which is a joint venture between involving CloudMinds, China Mobile and the Wuhan Wuchang Hospital. At the facility—dubbed the Smart Field Hospital—5G connected robots delivered food, drinks and medication to patients. In addition to providing a much-needed break to staff, the use of the robots limited the healthcare workers exposure to infected patients. Robots from companies like UVD Robots and Xenex Disinfection Services are also being used to disinfect hospitals and other at-risk locations in China, Italy and the US.
  • Hospitals in Vancouver, British Colombia (Canada) are installing IoT buttons (called Wanda Quicktouch, which are battery operated and connect through LTE-M) from Visionstate Corp that send alerts to management of cleaning or maintenance issues that may pose risks to public safety. Facility managers can track alerts and staff response times and monitor scheduled cleaning rotations in areas of greatest footfall.
  • Finally, drones are being used to deliver medical samples and supplies to and from COVID-19 hotspots. The Japanese company Terra Drone employed drones to transport supplies in China and claimed this increased the speed of transport by more than 50% compared to road transportation. Governments and law enforcement throughout China, France, Spain and the US are also using drones to monitor and ensure compliance with lockdown orders imposed due to the disease. Drones are also being used to spray disinfecting chemicals in some public spaces and on vehicles traveling between impacted areas

These wide range of use cases indicate IoT is indeed part of the answer in solving the unique challenges posed by COVID-19. It is important to note that none of the above are new IoT applications. Connected thermometers for instance have been around for years and are part of the larger consumer medical device IoT market, which Omdia projects will reach over 200m shipments in 2020. Wearable shipments have grown considerably in recent years and will reach an installed base of nearly 420m by the end of 2020.

The fact that existing IoT applications can be repurposed to assist in the COVID-19 threat is critical as it meant that these proven solutions were available and ready to be used in the early days of the virus outbreak. In this regard, companies from all parts of the IoT ecosystem should consider how their current solutions can be tactically repurposed to aid organizations and governments in fighting the pandemic.

Privacy concerns will need to be navigated

Looking forward, the most important role of IoT as it related to COVID-19 is likely to be one of prevention and helping to detect outbreaks before they reach mass scale. Mandated installation of connected thermometers in airports could be an IoT application that soon becomes commonplace. Another possible—though likely longer-term implementation—is a network of sensors that detect traces of COVID-19. Upon detection, a location could be ‘locked down’ to limit spread and ensure prompt treatment to infected individuals. It’s not too hard to imagine such systems being incorporated into future smart city deployments, which already include applications aimed at improving public safety such as gun fire detection and air quality sensors.

It should be pointed out this theoretical network of sensors that gathers personal medical data could present civil liberty questions and concerns. Even in the midst of COVID-19 outbreak, WHO has expressed concerns on this very matter.

Of course, security and privacy concerns are not new to the IoT market. While challenges certainly remain on this front, the issue is certainly one of increased focus for the entire industry which is taking a more holistic approach to topic. In the past two years, companies worldwide selling products and services into European Union (EU) and European Economic Area (EEA) countries have been obliged to adhere to data protection and privacy regulations under General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). GDPR, which came into force in May 2018, sets rules on how organizations can process the personal data of citizens (e.g. gather, retain or transfer to third parties and gain personal consent for all of this). The need to adhere to GDPR two years ago means that companies operating or selling into the EU and EEA had compliant products before the spread of COVID-19.

Earlier this month (March 2020), Taoglas launched the GDPR-compliant CROWD Insights, a people movement analytics platform that uses existing Wi-Fi infrastructure to “measure, monitor, predict, alert and notify public gathering and social distancing limit breaches for indoor and outdoor venues” such as hospitals. In some European countries, mobile operators are donating anonymized data to governments to help them track people movement over wide areas as COVID-19 spreads.

Ultimately the COVID-19 outbreak—similar to 9/11—will likely change of the calculus of what level of restrictions and monitoring is acceptable for the greater good of society. The world has undoubtedly changed from the one that existed just weeks ago. The economic, social and personal impact of COVID-19 is obvious and likely to result in greater willingness from governments and the public to implement systems were personal health information is monitored on a continuous basis.

Impact on the IoT Market will be mixed

The circumstances around COVID-19 will also undoubtedly impact aspects of the IoT market beyond healthcare. A prolonged period in which “social distancing” becomes the norm should result in greater reliance of automated solutions in a range of industries. Smart retail for instance could see a tremendous boost.

Movement restrictions imposed in many countries mean that millions of employees are working from home and their usual places of work are shut. The timeframe for a return to normality, including office working, is highly uncertain. Nevertheless, both governments and companies with physical facilities are planning for return to normality. In the near term, they will be considering measures to limit the potential for a “second wave” of COVID-19. One of the possible trends we may see is the shift from biometric (finger- or thumb-based) staff attendance/access control systems to those based on touchless technologies such as facial recognition.

Ramco Systems is one of several companies investigating ways of reducing the COVID-19 “surface area” in the office environment. Recently, the Singapore-based company’s innovation lab has released a facial recognition-based time and attendance system (RamcoGEEK) which includes temperature recording via thermal imaging technology embedded into an access control screen and an IoT door. The latter can restrict access to staff or visitors with a high temperature. Overall, the system can also monitor the movement of high-temperature staff within the office and send alerts to management and HR.

However, while such use cases serve to boost use of IoT, it is also undeniable the tremendous economic impact of the outbreak could compel many organizations to defer investment in new technologies such as IoT. In a survey of enterprise leaders in 2019 done in support of Digital Orbit Executive Briefing, 58% of respondents stated their organizations were planning to commit significant resources to adoption of IoT solutions, compared to just 4% that planned to commit no or little resources. How COVID-19 impacts resources allocation as it relates to the adoption of IoT and other transformative technologies will be a key area of focus of Omdia’s research over the next year.

Technical trends within the market could also be impacted. For instance, there is already a push to migrate analytics capabilities from the cloud to the edge in some IoT applications, a configuration which reduces latency and allows for more immediate response times. Edge processing also allows critical applications to function even when network connectivity is down or degraded. This trend could be hastened by use of IoT in a mission-critical application such as the scanning of the health vitals of passengers disembarking a plane.

The much-anticipated uptake of 5G—which itself also delivers much improved latency—in IoT is almost certainly set to be slowed by various factors. This includes already announced delays in the approval of 5G standards and networks deployments. On a more positive note, the outbreak of COVID-19 has not apparently diminished industrial companies’ interest in trialing/deploying private LTE/5G networks. Indeed, the experience of the last few weeks has been that the need to be flexible has become standard operating procedure for manufacturers. This means flexibility over what products to manufacture, where and how to do it and in what volumes. One of the major drivers of 5G, alongside adjacent devices and technologies such as AGVs, machine vision and 3D printing, will be the transition to flexible production. The experience of COVID-19 may well accelerate this trend.

Clearly, the impact of IoT on the COVID-19 pandemic (and vice versa) has already begun and is likely to only grow in upcoming months. While much is still unknown on how this situation will unfold, it is clear that technology is well-positioned to help enterprises, governments and society take on the threat.

Research by Market
Enterprise & IT
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