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Where are my people? Using IoT to sense location

People are the most critical asset for enterprises, especially for organizations that require their staff to engage deeply with their customers. Enterprises need to ensure that their people are safe, comply with requirements and are well-positioned to effectively engage with customers. The internet of things is a game-changer that will both drive employee productivity and enable high-touch customer interaction. IoT provides the power to combine a person’s location and state with the context that she is in, opening up new possibilities in various industry domains like travel and hospitality.

Today’s enterprises face a lot of challenges concerning people. Organizations that require a large part of their work force to be present on-premises today lack visibility into:

  • Where an employee is in real time
  • How the location of the employee is related to their work schedule or tools required
  • The nearest people who can be redeployed in the event of large customer influx, which can result in long lines, disgruntled customers and frayed tempers
  • Where employees are in the event of a calamity, in relation to a hazardous condition such as a fire alert
  • The vital health statistics (temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, etc.) of an employee in hazardous working conditions

Such lack of information on staff location, whether they have access to the right tools and whether they are at the best place to serve customers leads to ad hoc, suboptimal situational responses. In addition, these silos of data means they don’t have a holistic view, and they miss opportunities to optimize task allocation, employee movement and so forth.

The benefits of location sensing

The evolution of various indoor positioning technologies offers a great opportunity to develop accurate indoor positioning systems (IPS) to complement global positioning systems (GPS). Utilizing IPS for accurate, real-time location sensing of people inside premises provides the following benefits to enterprises:

  • Employee safety and compliance: Manufacturing plants and factories rely heavily on real-time location sensing to ensure the safety of their workers. In case of emergencies like oil spills, leakage of noxious gases or fire hazards, knowing real-time location of workers and guiding them to the nearest exit saves precious lives. Correlating the real-time location of workers with the context they are in allows evacuation of workers in the factory floor even before a nearby boiler on the floor gets overheated. Workers can be notified if they are about to enter an unauthorized zone. Supervisors can view the location of workers in real time and get notifications if workers are not within designated zones as per their roster tasks.
  • Operational efficiency: Retail stores and airlines can utilize IoT for employee/crew location sensing to increase their operational efficiency. When an airport arrival gate receives many passengers with wheelchair requirements, knowing the real-time location of ground assistance staff and directing them to the nearby wheelchairs can help avoid delays. When a particular section of the supermarket sees a lot of interest from customers, managers can assign additional staff members to that section to improve customer service. Additionally, based on people density heat maps at different times of the day, airports can turn off air conditioning and lighting in specific areas, saving operational costs.
  • Customer experience: The ability to track people inside premises offers many business use cases for improving the experience of end customers. Travel and hospitality businesses can use the location of customers to send context-specific advertisements to their mobile phones or to provide turn-by-turn indoor navigation. Airlines can utilize the real-time location of passengers in the airport to detect possible delays and push notification messages to their mobile phones requesting immediate boarding.

Why location sensing of people presents challenges

For all the above benefits, tracking people in real time might lead to concerns among the users. Here are a few concerns and challenges involved in people tracking:

  • Privacy considerations: Having one’s location constantly tracked through wearable devices that they wear or carry all day can lead to privacy concerns. People might not be comfortable with someone constantly watching their movements and activities. Exposure of such sensitive data could lead to security concerns. Proper workplace guidelines should be put in place to obtain the consent of the person before tracking his location and activities. People should be provided with options to disable tracking during specific times of the day and in designated sensitive areas.
  • Location accuracy: The majority of the location-sensing solutions are implemented using Wi-Fi or BLE technology, which provides at best around 3-5 meters of location accuracy. The accuracy is further affected by interference from other radio frequency signals and material movements. Superior technologies like ultra-wide band will yield centimeter-level accuracy, but they tend to be costly. Ultimately, the technology chosen for implementation should depend on domain-specific use cases and must make business sense.
  • Comfort and convenience: To effectively sense location, a wearable device (in the form of watch, armband, jewelry, access card, etc.) needs to be worn or carried by the people being tracked. This might cause some inconvenience to users. They might misplace the device or it might even get exchanged with others. Smartphones are ubiquitous in the modern world and could be used as an alternative device for location sensing. However, turning off Wi-Fi or BLE on the smartphone might render the person virtually untraceable. People need to be educated about the various benefits of location sensing and how the advantages far exceed the minor inconveniences.

Driving adoption

Irrespective of what advantages there are for the enterprise and how employees’ privacy concerns are assuaged, the key driver of adoption is the ability to answer the “what’s in it for me?” question. For example:

  • A worker in a mine will consent to location sensing if the primary benefit is safety
  • Hotel staff will consent to location sensing if they stand to gain efficiency and if their tasks are made easier
  • A factory worker will agree to location sensing if she will get benefits based on zones she is spending more time in

While the above talks of worker tracking, the exact same mechanics can be used to track other assets as well, and the same infrastructure is used. The important aspect is that irrespective of whether these are people or assets, they are all uniformly treated. These mean that we can now do very sophisticated rules like:

  • Is a person near the conveyor belt when the conveyor is moving at a speed greater than 0.25 m/s?
  • How many people are in the furnace area?
  • If the mine carbon monoxide content is greater than 100 ppm, and there are more than three people? If so, evacuate them immediately.
  • Are the three wheelchairs needed for a flight present near the gate 15 minutes before the flight lands?

Using IoT for sensing location of people could be a boon for enterprises, provided proper processes are in place and all the concerns of the users are addressed. Otherwise, people will always find a way to beat the system.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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