A year ago, the number of worker-focused proximity alert solutions could be counted on one hand. The need was not particularly great and the use case was very specific. The construction industry is one such area where the safety benefits are compelling. For over a decade, construction companies have been using forms of proximity detection as a means to interrupt at-risk behavior, with one such example being worker-worn systems to detect infrequent unsafe interactions between workers and equipment.
Today, the rapid worldwide proliferation of a novel virus has created an urgent new use case for proximity alerts. According to every health organization currently offering guidance to contain infectious diseases, proximity is directly related to risk. The path to re-opening businesses requires that risk to be measured. Human training is important, but companies need certainty. Introducing effective measurement tools to promote safe and secure work environments is only scalable through leveraging modern technology.
COVID-19 has turned the dial up in terms of worker interaction relevancy: every interaction is potentially unsafe and every worker is at risk to the invisible threat of Coronavirus. Several companies have rose to the challenge and created worker-focused proximity alert and contact tracing solutions within the past few months.
SmartConnect and Contact Tracing with IoT
SmartConnect has been developing technology in the “Connected Worker” space for over three years. Its badge-based solution focuses specifically on improving heavy industry safety, and the current iteration features LoRa® devices. Semtech recently spoke with SmartConnect representatives Shannon Posey, Founder and CEO, and David Freed, General Manager, about how LoRa has enabled its company’s pivot into employee proximity detection and contact tracing for broader enterprise and SMB use cases.
Your current hardware is LoRa-based. Did you evaluate other wireless technologies before using LoRa and what was your decision process?
Shannon Posey: Yes, you could say that we were wavelength and protocol agnostic at the outset, considering every major wireless option and many emerging ones. Bluetooth, UWB, Wi-Fi, LoRa, ZigBee, and Sigfox were the big contenders, for either ranging, backhaul or both. The first version of our Smart Badge used GPS and Wi-Fi for ranging and direct Cellular backhaul, but also featured LoRa. Infield testing quickly showed how badly cell coverage dropped inside a refinery and how Wi-Fi or BLE were unsustainable for ranging or backhaul. But we were pleased by the dependability and reliability of the LoRa-based system.
Can you go into detail on the environmental factors within an oil refinery? How did these impact your hardware decisions?
Shannon Posey: SmartConnect is owned by CertifiedSafety. We work at every safety level within oil and gas and pretty much live at oil refineries and power generation facilities. They are a wireless nightmare with a huge footprint, mostly metal, open flooring, dirty, noisy, and rough. Furthermore, our solution focus was on short-term turnarounds. Whatever hardware we had on site was not going to be installed for long. That’s not even the hard part – facilities also aren’t going to make their network available for us to get our data out. Everything has to be independent, easy to put up and have a robust network that sees through metal.
All of which pointed to LoRa-based networks?
David Freed: There were several characteristics about LoRa devices that we really found critical for the success of our solution. Of course the testing results were impressive, LoRa devices are capable of enabling network connections through concrete and steel consistently. The range was very good and it could handle a large number of badges per gateway. Our concerns centered around packet loss at the update rate we required in critical safety situations.
How has your current Smart Badge hardware adapted LoRa devices to the demanding requirements?
David Freed: Yes, the first major leap was to build our own MAC layer without killing battery life and requiring too much processing. The protocol reduces packet loss and handles more nodes per gateway without overwhelming the network with re-transmissions. We made the decision to use LoRa devices exclusively for backhaul from tag to gateway and back. The gateways then provide backhaul for all connected nodes via cellular - but could also backhaul with Wi-Fi, hardwire or satellite. It’s a cleaner system with as much redundancy as our clients need.
That leads us into the proximity detection and contact tracing topic. How did that come about?
Shannon Posey: We’ve been using indoor ranging, geofencing and zone alarms as part of SmartConnect’s safety and efficiency metrics feature set. Proximity detection and contact tracing nests in well with the current system. I understood how important a single point of truth would become, especially as state governors started issuing directives on worker’s compensation.
David Freed: Our T-4 badge is kind of a Swiss Army knife of wireless radios. Where one radio has weaknesses, another can take over with strengths. This was important in establishing the badge-to-badge ranging.
To learn more about SmartConnect’s LoRa-based deployments, watch the webinar from July 9, “Protecting Employees in a Post-COVID-19 Workplace.”
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