Leveraging IoT to Fight COVID-19

Introduction to COVID-19

The current pandemic caused by COVID-19, a particularly virulent strain of the corona virus, has changed the way we live. Till a vaccine is developed successfully – a process that can take years – the most prudent thing to do is stay protected. We have already seen how 3D printing can help fight COVID-19. Before we delve into how IoT (Internet of Things) can help fight COVID-19, let us first see how the disease spreads.

Corona virus is an infectious disease that is spread through human contact. One of the main ways it spreads is by droplets produced as a result of coughing or sneezing of a COVID-19 infected person.  While the virus cannot move on its own, it can spread through human contact. Since it can stay alive on various surfaces for anything ranging from hours to days, it is dangerous to touch contaminated objects as well. The gestation period for COVID-19 is anywhere 3 to 14 days. The scary part is that many people are asymptomatic to the virus, which means they do not get any symptoms, but can still spread the virus. In India, at least 30% people are asymptomatic to COVID-19. Once the virus finds a host, it begins to multiply. At times, and especially for people with co-morbidity, COVID-19 infection can prove to be fatal.

Once an infection is detected in a person, the first step is to quarantine the person and everyone who has been in contact with the person. Since the gestation period of the virus is relatively fast, it is imperative to isolate such people immediately irrespective of whether they are infected or not. One important point to note is that by the time detection takes place, even the doctor treating the virus and the healthcare personnel are at a high risk of catching the infection. They cannot constantly monitor the infected patient by traditional means that involve physically inspecting the patient. Secondly, it is almost impossible to manually track the people who have been in contact with the COVID-19 infected person. This is where IoT, coupled with AI can play an important role in stopping the spread of the virus. According to a study by Gartner, the market for wearable devices is set to reach about Rs. 3740 billion by end 2020. These wearable include smart watches, wrist bands, head mounted devices, ear-worn devices and wearable clothes. To fight COVID-19, these wearable devices and clothes will play a crucial role by helping doctors monitor the whereabouts and important health parameters of a person.

Role of IoT in Fighting COVID-19
There are multiple ways in which IoT related technology can render invaluable assistance in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and controlling the infection from spreading.

COVID-19 Tracing Apps
The first step in preventing an outbreak is detecting it. The govt of India, private companies and other organizations throughout the world have developed special corona apps that give users real-time info about COVID-19. Specifically, Arogya Setu is a mobile application developed by GOI to connect essential health services with the people of India. It uses IoT to proactively inform users of COVID-19 best practices. Organizations in US and UK are using Bluetooth enabled IoT devices to track and trace COVID-19 affected patients. Apple and google have released APIs that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. In the coming months, they will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms. Both the companies say it will prove to be a more robust solution than an API and would allow more individuals to participate in the COVID-19 tracking program. Other private companies as well govt. agencies of various nations in the world have also developed contact-tracing IoT based apps that builds a memory of proximity contacts and immediately notifies contacts of positive cases. If enough people use these apps, it can control the spread of COVID-19 effectively.

Smart Homes
One of the first things that people need to avoid is contaminated objects. COVID-19 can spread from coming in contact with people and objects infected with the corona virus. IoT can help in limiting the spread of the disease by eliminating points of contact of probable contaminated objects like switches, taps, lift buttons, etc. Contactless devices like smart video door phones, smart locks, smart lights, smart TVs, etc. already use IoT technology as a matter of convenience. The outbreak of COVID-19 has added a sense of urgency in using IoT technology to eliminate as many points of contact as possible. Malls and theatres have already installed contactless basin taps that use IoT to sense motion of the hands. Timers that can turn gadgets on and off is yet another way of reducing point of contact. One of the most recent innovations is the use of contactless lift buttons. Lifts are invariably used in high rise buildings. In India, it is mandatory to use lifts for buildings that are 4 storeys or higher. The smart elevators use motion sensors that work on IoT. These lifts are equipped with contactless buttons that display storeys in the air. They receive commands through a remote-controlled sensor. When these sensors detect the user's fingers on a storey number, the button is automatically pressed.

Smart Offices
Post lockdown, people will return to the office, where they share common amenities like water and coffee dispensers, air conditioners, washrooms, etc. There is a very high probability of COVID-19 infection due to these common amenities. IoT can help by embedding smart technology into these appliances and utilities. For example, smart water and tea / coffee dispensers can sense motion and fill the cup without anyone touching the dispensing button. Smart access control, smart lighting and smart AC that use IoT will be norm at each office. IoT based access controls that are non-biometric and based on RFID tokens will enable employees at the workplace to get access to specific areas without having a need to touch anything physically. Leveraging the power of IoT will create smart facility management that not only helps reduce energy consumption, but also eliminates the need to control lighting and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning at workplaces through switches. All this can be controlled using a cloud accessible, centralized dashboard.  These efforts at avoiding contact with objects through ioT will prove to be a valuable aid in the fight against COVID-19.

The Future
IoT will certainly prove to be of immense help in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. The decreasing cost of central data storage, and improvements in software and IoT platforms (like PTC ThingWorx) will enable more effective patient monitoring, data collection, and improvements in care. As more and more people take to wearable devices, companies will find innovative ways of harnessing IoT in combating COVID-19 via these devices. IoT will thus help fight not only COVID-19, but any such contagious disease of the future.