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The Growing Role Of IoT In COVID-19 Response

Illustration: © IoT For All

The world today is facing an unprecedented situation. While everyone feared a crisis in the lines of nuclear war, climate-related disaster, or similar catastrophic threats, few imagined that a virus could paralyze our world. It even gave birth to a new concept  to most of us— ‘social-distancing.’ Suddenly, a good citizen is one who avoids public places and cares for loved ones whilst maintaining six feet in distance. As the number of cases started rising and death tolls increasing, technologies like Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things have become valuable tools during these difficult times.

While the concept and the utility of Artificial Intelligence or AI are popular, IoT is a relatively lesser-known concept.

COVID-19 broke out and it’s highly infectious nature was discovered and healthcare professionals all around the world face the challenge of treating the diseased with minimal contact. This pandemic advanced the modification and deployment of IoT devices to support the healthcare sector.

1. Track Quarantine

A critical step to curb the spread of COVID-19 is the effective quarantine of infected or perceived to be infected people. But in a global world, this is easier said than done. So, countries throughout the world turned to IoT and GPS enabled apps to track and, when necessary, restrict such people’s movements. Russia, Poland, Singapore, South Korea are a few countries that are going this route. Hong Kong started it’s quarantine efforts from the airport. Arriving passengers were given wrist-bands along with a unique QR to track their movements. Passengers downloaded an app called ‘StayHome Safe’ on their smartphones and scanned the QR. On reaching home, the person had to walk around the apartment to calibrate the device. The basic technology is Geofencing, where a virtual perimeter is created using GPS, RFID, Wi-fi, BlueTooth signal, and cellular network.

2. Pre-screening or Diagnosis

While hospitals and medical centers were quick to start telemedicine services to diagnose and answer questions about COVID-19, the number of calls was overwhelming. According to Partner Healthcare, Boston, the average wait time on their hotline peaked to 30 minutes, and many callers even dropped out within this time.

To counter this problem, software companies collaborated with hospitals and medical centers to set up chatbots on their website and mobile apps. These chatbots ask a series of questions to screen visitors according to the severity of their conditions. This way, the doctors and medical staff don’t have to answer the same questions over and over. They can instead use this time to treat patients.

According to Providence St. Joseph Health System in Seattle, which created a similar tool in collaboration with Microsoft, this system served almost 40,000 patients in the first week itself.

Bespoke, a Japanese company, launched ‘Bebot,’ a chatbot that answers coronavirus related questions via a mobile app. Many other hospitals are looking at similar solutions.

3. Cleaning and Disinfecting

Cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting of medical facilities are indispensable and the infectious nature of COVID-19 further emphasizes this step. Thanks to companies like TMiRob, UVD, and Xenex Disinfection Services, self-driving robots are used for this task. They disinfect the surfaces by emitting high-intensity ultraviolet light, which destroys the virus by tearing apart their DNA. They are wi-fi based and can be controlled through apps. Currently, these are being used in China, Italy, and the USA.

4. Innovative Uses Of Drones

With social-distancing becoming the new normal, drones have found some innovative uses:

5. Reducing In-Home Infections

There is an increasing awareness among people to avoid touching vulnerable surfaces like doorknobs, light switches, etc. particularly after touching mails or packages. Instead, they use IoT enabled smart speakers, lights, security systems, etc. to open doors and switch on lights.

In fact, this person recently used his smart security system to request the delivery guy to leave the package inside his house while he unlocked the door from his phone.

According to a survey conducted in March by Hub Entertainment Research, smart speakers and smart home devices like thermostats and doorbells have seen an increase in ownership to 42% and 39%, respectively.

On the other hand, with the stay at home orders in place, IoT gives us the flexibility of video conferencing and also virtually meeting our loved ones with a simple voice command.

Wuhan Wuchang Smart Field Hospital, Wuhan, China

In early March 2020, a smart field hospital was set-up in Wuhan, China, to provide some relief to the exhausted healthcare workers. This hospital was the perfect example of AIOT, i.e., a combination of IoT and AI. Robots and other IoT devices performed all the tasks in this hospital — from checking temperatures of incoming patients to cleaning and disinfecting the area. They provided food and medicines to the quarantined patients and even entertained them by dancing. Each patient wore a smart bracelet and ring, so their vitals, including temperature, heart-rate, and blood-oxygen levels, could be monitored. If there were signs of infection, the medical staff was intimated. Even doctors and nurses wore these bracelets to capture early signs of infection.

A number of similar hospitals have been set up in Wuhan, which can accommodate almost 20,000 patients if regular hospitals are overwhelmed.

Currently, operations in Wuhan Wuchang Smart Field Hospital have been put on hold due to a decreased number of cases in the region.

According to a report by Forrester Research, before the COVID-19 pandemic, only 7% of IoT solutions were in the Smart Healthcare field in the Asia Pacific region (APAC). As the reach and severity of the pandemic increased, IoT began taking a frontline in many countries, outside APAC, to manage the crisis. Although many have come up with ad-hoc measures, it is time to provide concrete structures to most of these efforts, if not all. Achim Granzen, a Principle Analyst at Forrester, gave a simple example of how efforts could be taken a step further with IoT. Many countries have set up temperature measurement systems at the entrance of most public places like train stations etc. If this collected data (temperature) could be transferred and analyzed in the cloud through an app, it could result in real-time analysis.

As with all technologies, IoT, too, has its pitfalls. While its strength lies in data, inadequate protection can make it lethal. Appropriate measures like data encryption need to be taken to ensure privacy.

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