June 18, 2020

Personal sensor may provide COVID-19 protection in post-pandemic workplace

Engineering research chair works on device to monitor people without encroaching on privacy

The identification lanyard you use to swipe open doors at work may be key to keeping you healthy in a post-COVID19 world, says a University of Calgary engineering researcher.

As software engineers around the world turn to contact tracing as a means to track coronavirus, Dr. Steven Liang, PhD, says digital sensors carried by staff or students may prove to be an in-house method for employers and institutions to protect their people in a pandemic-sensitive world.

“Just as 9/11 changed our airports forever, COVID-19 is going to change how we design our public spaces and how we live, work and play,” says Liang, an associate professor in the Department of Geomatics Engineering at Schulich School of Engineering.

New research chair

Liang has just been named to a prestigious new research chair focused on exactly the kind of digital technology that may become ubiquitous in a pandemic-wary world.

Together, Rogers Communications and the University of Calgary established the Rogers Internet of Things Chair, with a focus on energy, smart cities, transportation, and workplace safety including COVID-19 related solutions.

Contract tracing without privacy concerns

The support of Rogers Communications means Liang has been able to immediately turn his attention to one of the world's most pressing questions, which is keeping the novel coronavirus at bay.

Contact tracing uses proximity sensor technologies like Bluetooth to keep track of the people you’ve been near, and smartphones are viewed by many researchers as a ubiquitous way of determining exactly who a virus carrier was in contact with, using the phone’s own digital record.

But opening personal smartphone data to outside scrutiny leads to privacy issues, and it’s not even clear if anyone outside of government or public health agencies will have access to such sensitive records.

Independent sensors may be the answer

The question of protecting the health of corporations and institutions in the world after the COVID-19 quarantine is why Liang has turned his focus to independent digital sensors that can be carried or worn, much like the identification lanyards already common in many workplaces and schools.

“It could also be a button or a wristband, and wearables are something organizations or corporations can issue to their people, to monitor health and safety,” explains Liang.

“Like a laptop or identification card, it just becomes part of the gear you carry around at work.”

Sensors in buildings to track physical distancing

In addition, Liang says the system could incorporate siloed sensors within the building, to track overcrowding, or areas where infected people had been, in the event of a viral outbreak.

“My focus is not just the sensor, which is people-to-people interaction, but on people-to-place interactions as well,” he says.

“The system would generate a risk profile for both people and places within the corporation, so you could track clusters and patterns, or identify a room that needs to be disinfected immediately.”

Prototype expected within months

Liang says he expects to produce a prototype within a couple of months, and then his team will study it to determine emerging issues and challenges.

“Our students and researchers are constantly looking for innovative and entrepreneurial solutions as we move forward in the digital revolution, and work to benefit society,” says Liang.

“Rogers' support will help to support cutting-edge research on software applications for new technologies now and in the future.”

  • Photo of Liang, above, by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary