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How smart devices can combat Covid-19 and future epidemics

19 July 2020
Damian Bemben

Although there were plenty of warnings, Covid-19 still came as a shock - the kind that changes history. Economic policies will change, culture will change and businesses have to change too. The first challenge for everyone is to quash the current epidemic, but the second is to embrace permanent change.

Track and Trace

The first step in controlling an infectious disease is detection, but the government’s phone tracking proposals only scratch the surface of what is possible and what is needed.

Mass tracking is only needed when earlier opportunities to detect and contain outbreaks have failed. Thermal cameras deployed at ports, airports and railway stations could detect signs of fever, corroborate information with other cameras using the IoT, and provide a much faster alert than the one that eventually came from China about Covid-19.

Thermal cameras, and other health checking devices, can also be deployed in particular buildings and business premises. Employers can provide them to monitor the health of their staff and visitors. Most will welcome the opportunity, and appreciate the protection the company is providing. Eventually we think such equipment will be commonplace, and even in normal times it will help to reduce workforce sick leave.

Indiscriminate phone tracking is a panic reaction. Mobile phones can’t tell you if their owner is harbouring a virus, or whether the virus passed to any of the hundreds of people they may have encountered during its incubation period. The best IoT solution is prevention - and that’s far better than the cure.


The public knows our healthcare workers are doing a great job in a high-risk environment. Despite shortages, capacity wasn’t overrun and emergency hospitals have remained empty. However, behind the headlines there is a darker picture - the healthcare sector was the main vector by which the virus spread. The toll on nursing home residents and staff is out of all proportion to the toll in society at large. Without a range of new protections, hospitals and care homes could become the problem instead of the solution.

In the US, the FCC quickly made changes to its Rural Health Care program to enable Medicare to provide remote consultations. In the UK, doctors have traditionally resisted innovations such as remote consultations and expert diagnostic systems for fear it will erode their status and budgets. In times of epidemic, the dangers of contagion and cross-contagion between staff and patients outweigh those concerns. The NHS, and other healthcare providers, should quickly scale up their ability to diagnose and monitor patients remotely.

Remote patient monitoring (RPM) using IoT connected sensors and instruments can improve greatly on a monthly doctor’s appointment. Health conditions can be monitored continually, and medication adjusted immediately changes are detected. Smart medical sensors are already becoming more common, but in times of epidemic, they are more important than ever, freeing up beds and staff, reducing costs, and accelerating treatment delivery. In the event of a problem, they can automatically summon a doctor or ambulance.

Remote working

The majority of the world’s businesses have made adjustments to allow home-working during the lockdown. Having discovered the enormous savings (rent, electricity, travel) many will shift permanently toward it. Cloud software and Zoom conferencing are enough for some, but there are IoT solutions for all kinds of remote and mobile equipment too.

Essentially, any equipment used in the course of an activity can be engineered to provide real-time information back to the cloud, where it can be analysed, monitored, adjusted or automated - either by senior personnel or by artificial intelligence. This means many operations, or entire factories, can be automated and safely monitored from afar.

Air quality

A great weakness of modern buildings is their air conditioning systems. Green legislation and energy prices encourage us to rely on HVAC systems that circulate and recirculate air instead of expelling it. While it makes economic sense, it isn’t very reassuring in an epidemic. While most have filters, few are good enough to remove or destroy viruses.

In the war against Covid-19, not to mention influenza and “sick building syndrome”, a huge contribution can be made by smarter HVAC installations, especially in supermarkets and office blocks. Rather than making shoppers queue for an hour, the air quality inside a building might be a better guide as to how many people to admit or turn away.

A fully IoT connected HVAC system can drastically improve the safety of the air inside our buildings. Sensors can detect CO2 levels, viral loads, spores and other micro-organisms, adjusting air-flow and other conditions accordingly. At the same time, they can ensure your system delivers the best possible value-for-money, switching off unnecessary functions when they aren’t actually needed.

In these and a host of other ways, the IoT can help your business back to work, while also protecting your workers and margins from a range of other threats - both new and old.

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