Excerpt from the article, “Tagging Employees to Stop the Coronavirus” written by Pan Demetrakakes:
Tagging Employees to Stop the Coronavirus
Until the pandemic is suppressed by vaccines, social distancing and contact tracing remain the only readily available tools companies have against it. These can be a lot more effective when backed by digital technology.
Systems are available that can remind employees on a plant floor, or within any other confines, to keep their distance on the plant floor and record when they don’t. They have the capacity to record every incident of close contact between individuals – date and time, location, duration – and, if one of those individuals proves positive for COVID, generate reports detailing those contacts.
These systems vary in their technology and operational principles. Choosing among them requires thinking about what kinds of information is needed, how to protect employee privacy and what use, if any, the system will have after the pandemic is over.
Some of these systems evolved from other, pre-pandemic uses, such as tracking trucks – or even helping to train athletes in team sports. Others were created specifically to deal with the pandemic. They all require employees to wear or carry devices that can send, and in most cases receive, digital signals and can interface with some sort of data-gathering device. What varies is the method of gathering data and the types of signals.
One of the more popular communication technologies for contact tracing is ultra wideband (UWB), a form of radio waves that can transmit large amounts of data over short ranges with low energy
UWB is a precise yet power-sensitive short-range technology, which leads to a potential drawback: In crowded environments, a large number of tags can overwhelm each other, leading to poor data and dead batteries.
BlueCats gets around that problem by leveraging the advantages of both Bluetooth and UWB. BlueCats CEO Nathan Dunn admits that Bluetooth is not as precise in terms of tracking as UWB: “From a tracking standpoint, it’s a bit fuzzy.” But that becomes an advantage for BlueCats’ system, which uses tags that run both Bluetooth and UWB.
If a location is swarming with tags, a UWB system can have a hard time keeping track of them all, Dunn says. The Bluetooth component can help the system perform what he calls “triage,” by focusing on the tags or area the user really wants information from. It can set an overriding range of, say, 40m and keep the system from recording contacts farther away than that. BlueCats also uses Bluetooth to upload contact data from tags to a gateway device that can run wirelessly or off Ethernet, without using any of the customer’s internet capacity.
Maintaining employee privacy is one of the most delicate considerations in implementing a COVID tracing program. The basic imperative is that as few people as possible know the identity of someone who tests positive or otherwise presents a necessity for contact tracing.
In tracing systems, privacy is usually a function of decentralization; the less centralized a system is, the easier it is to confine information to individuals. Most companies that invest in tracing, however, do so to effectively combat the spread of COVID within their walls, or at least to get an accurate picture of its status. The best systems combine the privacy that comes with decentralization with the capacity to determine identity when needed, and only when needed.
When deciding whether to invest in a contact tracing system, potential buyers should ask themselves two basic questions: how long they expect to do COVID-related contact tracing, and whether they want the system to do anything else once the pandemic is over.
Gauging the end of the pandemic, at least as of press time, is a tricky calculation. Vaccines are rolling out and several jurisdictions are prioritizing food industry workers. On the other hand, there still aren’t enough vaccines to go around, new and worrisome variants of the coronavirus are emerging, and it’s unclear whether vaccinated individuals can still transmit the disease.
On top of this, many Americans – 25%, according to one poll – distrust vaccines so intensely that they have no plans to get a COVID vaccine shot. Vendors of tracing systems point to this uncertainty as proof that contact tracing will still be needed for a while.
“Basically, this [tracing] is a minimum two-year requirement,” says Dunn of BlueCats. “Because this concept of, ‘There’s a vaccine, everything will go back to normal’ – in my opinion that’s flawed thinking.”
Nonetheless, the pandemic will subside eventually, which is why anyone thinking of a contact tracing system may want to consider what, if anything, it could do for them after the crisis is over. That kind of versatility is more likely to be found in systems that were originally designed for other purposes and adapted for the pandemic.
BlueCats provides solutions to create safer, more efficient and productive workplaces. Founded in 2010 and headquartered in Sydney, Australia, with U.S. offices in Austin, Texas, and Huntsville, Alabama, BlueCats specializes in real time proximity and sensing technology to increase safety and productivity. For more information, visit www.bluecats.com.