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How Cloud-Driven Networking Makes Buildings COVID-19 Resistant – My VantagePoint

As pundits debate which country’s approach to dealing with CV-19 is performing less badly, the only real fact most people can agree on is that the virus is winning. Organizations are grappling with  how to re-open, and an active thread of public discourse surrounds the guidelines and best practices for testing, contact tracing, and social distancing. At the same time,  entrepreneurial technologists at many different companies are hard at work trying to imagine a “new normal” where the building where we work, we relax, and we cheer the home team can be made inherently safer from the scourge that is CV-19 and its future progeny.

In simple terms, there are three classes of environments we live and work in and along with these there are three general classes of protection and health risk mitigation that can be deployed to deal with the higher health risks posed by CV-19 and inevitably, whatever follows. The “new normal” so to speak. The three environments are the general community at large, where local government and cooperating businesses work in concert to reduce health risk;  the campus environment, be that a single entity across multiple buildings, or a collection of connected buildings; and the individual building, or a subset of a building, where a corporation or tenet has some degree of control over the environment. 

In turn, one taxonomy, among many, for thinking about addressing health in a building with the assistance of technology would be a basic level, which would include some form of location tracking, contract tracing and occupancy management to understand and enforce social distancing policies. This, in concert with higher availability of sanitizers, signage, training, forehead temperature scanning upon building entry, perhaps together with the use of special-purpose smartphone apps, would afford a certain level of protection and assurance. The next step up in the hierarchy would be the introduction of building sensors and associated software to actively monitor the environment and the occupants as well. More details to follow. A third tier of building health management would be yet a higher level of smart building engagement – active virus suppression and eradication.  

So, what does that look like? 

Interestingly, common across all these solutions is the need for organizations to be able to react quickly and improve processes rapidly, as new science and facts about CV-19 or subsequent viruses and pathogens become known. This calls for the use of a cloud-based infrastructure to provide a foundation upon which to build these solutions. Moreover, an incremental benefit of a cloud-based solution, aside from speed, simplicity, security, and lower cost, is the fact that a cloud-based solution lends itself to collecting data that can be mined for big data analysis, or better yet, can feed ML and AI algorithms that constantly improve the performance of the system to support pandemic response efforts, and many other use cases. 

Further, like in anything, there are clouds, and then here are clouds – meaning that not every cloud solution is as flexible or can move as quickly or be as reliable as others. An analogy here might help. If we think of a cloud solution as a car, and we need to be able to adapt the car quickly and reliably to the evolving terrain / circumstances and facts, then the ideal car is one with tires that can be changed dynamically, or the engine size can be increased, or the passenger capacity  can be changed, and all while the car is running as opposed to requiring a prolonged pit stop, or worse, a  garage visit. This means that the ideal cloud should be architected based upon a microservices architecture that can dynamically scale, and critically, has impeccable data retention integrity. (This is the type of cloud that Extreme Networks has built, with the additional benefit and flexibility of being host cloud agnostic with private cloud and local deployment options.)   

Ok, ok – but what does this cloud-based solution for these different taxonomies really look like in practice?

In the basic case, keeping track of the location of people is likely to be done by listening to Bluetooth from people’s phones or watches or FitBits. As UWB becomes more standardized (as in the new iPhone 11) and APIs are made available, location accuracy will greatly improve (see Bystander to a Revolution). In like fashion, you can envision small portable tags that can be utilized here as well.  These solutions will provide an important measure of improved health outcomes as a first step in the new normal. 

The next step up, for further improvements, is the introduction of sensors. There are many that can be thought of, and inventors will most certainly envision and deliver more we haven’t conceived of yet. For example, it is feasible to deploy remote infrared temperature sensors at multiple places in a building not just a forehead scan upon entry. There is also the option to deploy portable temperature sensors that can be worn by building occupants. Another type of sensor can be used to remotely detect blood oxygen levels from exhaled breath. This is relevant in that some patients’ first notable symptom is abnormal blood oxygen levels. Further, acoustic sensors, when processed with the appropriate algorithms, can be used to detect a dry cough that has the implicit signature of a COVID-19 carrier. Clearly being able to identify indicators of potential  carriers in the workspace, then quickly act to isolate suspected individuals would further protect the workplace over and above our class of location awareness precautions.  

The next step in smart building health would be active virus mitigation. For sure there are efforts underway to introduce virus reduction air treatment systems. There are also early trials of human-safe UV at the 222 nm wavelength that are showing great promise for killing airborne virus. It is hard to predict what other technologies will be invented in this segment, but it is a certainty that the sheer calamitous impact of CV-19 worldwide has inventors conjuring new ways to irradiate airborne virus.  

In summary, a cloud with advanced capabilities is a fundamental building block, the foundation to build upon so-to-speak, for any of these different levels of smart building protection systems to be successful.  Location awareness-oriented applications, supplemented by a variety of education, masks, and hygiene practices, are just the start. Many building owners or businesses are likely to move to a more advanced system, built in the cloud, to monitor a variety of sensor types and feeding ML and AI subsystems that improves early detection of suspected CV-19 carriers in the work space.

The last level of smart building protection in the forthcoming new normal will be active virus removal and eradication systems. Now envision  what such a set of systems might look like if they resemble classic on-premise solutions that receive new software updates once per year by an IT administrator sitting down at a console and directing updates to various devices. Then try to imagine this same scenario when due to the nature of new information and new science, updates might be required every week. Practically speaking, not to mention the potential for legal risk, this old-world model is simply a non-starter. The future of smart buildings that can make a critical difference in our workplace, our stadiums, our classrooms, our theaters, and restaurants will be in the cloud, and a very advanced model of the cloud at that.    

This blog was originally authored by Chief Technology Officer, Eric Broockman.

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