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It is undeniable that technology is helping to get us through the unprecedented measures that have been put in place in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Downloads and the use of workplace collaboration tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Slack have increased dramatically and are allowing companies to retain some semblance of order in today’s unique environment. At the same time, social media and video-calling services such as FaceTime are allowing families to stay connected despite complete physical isolation in many locations. Along a similar thread, video-streaming services are providing some form of entertainment and a much-needed break from the news.  

Even more important, technology is playing a growing role in helping authorities prevent the further spread of COVID-19, while also treating those that have been infected. IoT, specifically and especially when combined with other transformative technologies such as Cloud and AI, has seen use in a wide range of applications during the crisis.  

Some notable examples of the above happening today include the following: 

  • Connected thermometers are being used by hospitals—and at other public locations—to screen patients and staff. Kinsa Inc. from San Francisco has used data gathered from its more than one million connected thermometers to produce daily maps identifying US counties posting an increase in high fevers, the most common symptom of COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). These data points not only can provide unparalleled real-time disease surveillance, they can also serve as an early warning sign of new clusters of the disease. 

  • Connected wearables are playing an important role too. Patients and staff at a field hospital in Wuhan, China, wore bracelets and rings synced with an AI platform from CloudMinds—the Beijing-based operator of cloud-based systems for intelligent robots—to provide constant monitoring of vital signs, including temperature, heart rate, and blood oxygen levels. At the same time, authorities in Hong Kong are using electronic tracker wristbands to alert officials when individuals—specifically those recently arrived from international destinations—do not comply with compulsory home quarantines. And on the more unusual side, a team of entrepreneurs has developed a smart wristband that vibrates if wearers try to touch their face, an action that health authorities have cited as being a leading cause of virus spread.  

  • Robots are being used to alleviate the stress on healthcare workers and to assist in the treatment of patients. The best example to date comes from the previously mentioned field hospital in Wuhan, a joint venture involving CloudMinds, the state-controlled telecom giant China Mobile, and the Wuhan Wuchang Hospital. At the facility, dubbed the Smart Field Hospital, 5G connected robots delivered food, drinks, and medication to patients. In addition to providing a much-needed break to staff, the use of the robots limited the healthcare workers exposure to infected patients. Robots from companies like UVD Robots and Xenex Disinfection Services are also being used to disinfect hospitals and other at-risk locations in China, Italy, and the US. 

  • Hospitals in Vancouver, Canada, are installing IoT buttons made by Visionstate Corp. called Wanda QuickTouch. Battery operated and connecting through LTE-M, QuickTouch sends to management alerts on cleaning or maintenance issues that may pose risks to public safety. Facility managers can track alerts and staff response times, as well as monitor scheduled cleaning rotations in areas of greatest footfall.  

  • Finally, drones are being used to deliver medical samples and supplies to and from COVID-19 hotspots. The Japanese company Terra Drone employed drones to transport supplies in China and claimed this increased the speed of transport by more than 50% compared to road transportation. Governments and law enforcement throughout China, France, Spain, and the US are also using drones to monitor and ensure compliance with lockdown orders imposed because of the disease. And drones are being used to spray disinfecting chemicals in some public spaces and on vehicles traveling between impacted areas.  

These wide-ranging use cases indicate that IoT is, indeed, part of the answer to solving the unique challenges posed by COVID-19. It is important to note that none of the above are new IoT applications. Connected thermometers, for instance, have been around for years and are part of the larger consumer medical device IoT market, where worldwide shipments this year are projected by Omdia to exceed 200 million units. Shipments of wearables, where considerable growth  has taken place in recent years, will reach an installed base of nearly 420 million by the end of 2020.  

The fact that existing IoT applications were repurposed to assist in the COVID-19 threat is critical, as it meant that these proven solutions were available and ready to be used in the early days of the virus outbreak. To this end, companies from all parts of the IoT ecosystem should consider how their current solutions can be tactically repurposed to aid organizations and governments in fighting the pandemic. 

Privacy concerns will need to be navigated  
Looking forward, the most important role of IoT as it relates to COVID-19 is likely to be one of prevention and helping to detect outbreaks before they reach mass scale. Mandated installation of connected thermometers in airports could be an IoT application that soon becomes commonplace. Another possible—though likely longer-term implementation—is a network of sensors that can detect traces of COVID-19. Upon detection, a location could be locked down to limit spread and ensure the prompt treatment of infected individuals. It isn’t too hard to imagine such systems being incorporated into future smart city deployments, which already include applications aimed at improving public safety, such as gunfire detection and air-quality sensing. 

This theoretical network of sensors gathering personal medical data, it should be pointed out, is likely to stir serious debate on questions of privacy and civil liberty. The WHO has expressed concerns on this very matter, even in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak.  

Of course, security and privacy concerns are not new to the IoT market. While challenges undoubtedly remain on this front, the IoT industry has continued to make strides in this area. For instance, in the past two years, companies worldwide selling products and services into EU and European Economic Area (EEA) countries have been obliged to adhere to data protection and privacy principles under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legal framework. GDPR, which came into force in May 2018, sets rules on how organizations doing business with the EU and EEA can gather, retain, process, or transfer to third parties the personal data of individuals residing inside the EEA. Compliance with GDPR starting two years ago means that companies operating or selling into the EU and EEA had compliant products before the spread of COVID-19.  

Earlier this month in March, US maker Taoglas launched its GDPR-compliant Crowd Insights, an analytics platform that tracks the movement of people, using existing Wi-Fi infrastructure to “measure, monitor, predict, alert and notify public gathering and social distancing limit breaches for indoor and outdoor venues,” including hospitals. In some European countries, as COVID-19 spreads, mobile operators are donating anonymized data to governments to help them track the movement of people over wide areas.  

Ultimately, the COVID-19 outbreak—like the 9/11 attacks—will likely change the calculus on the level of restriction and monitoring that could be deemed acceptable to safeguard the greater good of society. The world has utterly changed from what existed just weeks ago. The economic, social, and personal impact of COVID-19 on life are obvious, and what follows will likely result in greater willingness from governments and the public to implement systems in which personal health information can be monitored on a continual basis.  

Impact on the IoT market will be mixed  
The circumstances around COVID-19 will unquestionably also impact aspects of the IoT market beyond healthcare. A prolonged period in which social distancing becomes the norm should result in greater reliance of automated solutions in a range of industries. Smart retail, for instance, could see a tremendous boost.  

Movement restrictions imposed in many countries mean that millions of employees are working from home and that their usual places of work are closed. The time frame for a return to normality, including working at the office, is highly uncertain. Nevertheless, governments and companies with physical facilities plan for a return to normality. In the near term, they will be considering measures to limit the potential for a “second wave” of COVID-19. One possible trend we may see is a shift from finger- or thumb-based biometric systems for access control and attendance monitoring to those based on touchless technologies, such as facial recognition.  

Ramco Systems is one of several companies investigating ways of reducing the COVID-19 “surface area” in the office environment. Recently, the company’s innovation lab released a facial recognition-based time and attendance system, RamcoGEEK, which includes temperature recording via thermal imaging technology embedded into an access control screen and an IoT door. The latter can restrict access to staff or visitors with a high temperature. Overall, the system can also monitor the movement of high-temperature staff within the office and send alerts to management and HR. 

However, while such use cases serve to boost the use of IoT, the enormous economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak could compel many organizations to defer investment in new technologies such as IoT. In a survey of enterprise leaders in 2019 conducted in support of Omdia’s Digital Orbit Executive Briefing, 58% of respondents stated that their organizations planned to commit significant resources to the adoption of IoT solutions, compared to just 4% that planned to commit few resources or none. How COVID-19 impacts the allocation of resources in relation to the adoption of IoT and other transformative technologies will be a key area of focus of Omdia’s research over the next year.  

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Technical trends within the IoT market could also be impacted. For instance, there is already a push to migrate analytics capabilities from the cloud to the edge in some IoT applications, a configuration which reduces latency and allows for more immediate response times. Edge processing also allows critical applications to function even when network connectivity is down or degraded. This trend could be hastened by using IoT in a mission-critical application, such as scanning the health vitals of passengers disembarking from a plane.  

The much-anticipated uptake in IoT of 5G—which on its own also delivers much improved latency—is almost certainly set to be slowed by various factors. This includes already announced delays in the approval of 5G standards and network deployments. On a more positive note, the outbreak of COVID-19 has not apparently diminished interest among industrial companies in conducting trials or deploying private LTE/5G networks. Indeed, the experience of the last few weeks has shown that being flexible has become the standard operating procedure for manufacturers. In practical terms, this new approach translates into flexibility over what products to manufacture, where and how to do so, and in what volume and quantity. One of the major drivers of 5G—alongside adjacent devices and technologies such as automated guided vehicles, machine vision, and 3D printing—will be the transition to flexible production. The experience of COVID-19 may well accelerate this trend in the manufacturing industry. 

Clearly, the impact of COVID-19 on IoT—and vice versa—is already being felt and is likely to only deepen in the upcoming months. Much remains unknown: How the coronavirus is to be contained; when the crisis can be resolved; what sort of world will be left when we emerge. Yet it is also clear that IoT is well-positioned to help enterprises, governments, and society as a whole take on a threat of this magnitude, with IoT then partnering in the recovery and rebuilding of industries and markets.  

This Market Insight is offered under Omdia’s Enterprise research pillar. Omdia subscribers also have full access to our Enterprise & IT research category and its four research services, namely: Cloud & Data Center, Enterprise IT SecurityEnterprise Networks & Communication, and M2M, IoT & Connectivity.