Modjoul Blog

To Beacon or Not to Beacon: Emerging Technologies in the Age of Social Distancing

By Shridhar Kulkarni on June 11, 2020 |


With workplace COVID-19 safety at the forefront of public awareness, Contact Tracing and Social Distancing (CTSD) have carved out two new major groups of wearables that are emerging in the tech industry.

Self-Operational Wearables
Self-operational wearables are the devices that can perform unassisted CTSD analysis. To do this, they broadcast themselves as well as scan the surrounding radio signals to determine if another wearable is in close-proximity and violating social distancing. These powerful tools have the potential to limit the community spread of illness by reinforcing CTSD policies, but they do have some drawbacks. Below are some pros and cons associated with self-operational wearables.
Accurate Measurements can be made because the devices can tell exactly how far apart, they are from one another. The wearables communicate by broadcasting and scanning for RSSI (Received Signal Strength Indicator) values. The higher the value, the closer the contact.
The Form Factor of self-operational devices lends itself to user-friendly discrete operation. Most of these devices can be worn as normal articles of clothing or accessories such as Belts, Watches, or badges.
Mobile Integrations can be made with devices you use every day. For example, your smartphone or watch is likely capable of facilitating CTSD services
Battery Life can often be compromised when a device must constantly broadcast and scan for local signals. Even with advanced battery optimizations, CTSD services still require a lot of power. To solve for this, wearable companies such as Modjoul have created charging docs that provide easy access to power so that employees can charge and store their devices neatly when not in use.

Bluetooth Beacons are designed to eliminate the burden of having to broadcast and scan a signal. Although this may sound efficient, it may prove to be anything but. To unpack the details of beaconing, there are a few things it is important to know.
Broadcasting a Signal is the beacons sole purpose. This eliminates half of the work done by the standard self-operational wearable.
Battery Life is typically much longer for devices that rely on beacons simply because of the reduced workload. This results in the use of smaller batteries and therefore smaller wearables. The beacon itself can be plugged into the wall meaning it never needs to charge
Inaccuracies and inconsistencies in CTSD data are common with beacon systems because they can only determine the distance between themselves and wearables that are in its range/vicinity. They cannot determine distance between the wearables themselves, an extremely crucial metric for reporting CTSD data.
Cost is a major factor when implementing beacons. Typically, long range industrial use beacons can cost $50 before factoring in maintenance and subscription fees. To cover a large workspace, it could take hundreds of beacons to ensure that CTSD data is properly collected. This will drive the deployment as well as operating costs through the roof and in the present economic conditions, it is not viable for 99% of the employers out there.

To further Illustrate the differences between self-operational wearables, check out the diagram below.

Using Beacons for Specific Use-Cases
There are certain scenarios that can benefit from beacons. The best use case for them is finding which spaces in your office that need cleaning because they are heavily trafficked throughout the workday.
• A few beacons can be placed at large distances in different areas of the office/plant where they can give you accurate information of how many people traveled through and during what time of the day. Using beacons in this way would keep costs low.
• The users can even be buzzed or alerted to prevent them from entering such “zones” as marked by the beacon in its radius.
• This can help employers find specific places inside office/workplaces to clean so they can reduce risk of infection with targeted cleaning efforts.

In Conclusion
While beacons can serve a purpose as highlighted above, they can be a substantial investment that may not yield the desired result when it comes to monitoring contact tracing and social distancing. In some settings, it would make sense to have a combination of both self-operational wearables and beacons to understand how and where individuals interact. However, in these times many health and safety decisions need to factor in cost effectiveness. It is our opinion that self-operational wearables offer the best protection at the best price and should emerge as the solution of choice for all businesses looking to implement social distancing and contact tracing services.

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