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The IoT market faces a mixed picture in the evolving and challenging context of the COVID-19 outbreak. On one hand, IoT solutions are playing an important role in helping organizations and society meet the challenge of COVID-19. From connecting hospitals to supporting rapid shifts in supply chains, a number of IoT solutions have come to the fore during this period. In some cases we expect these changes to accelerate adoption of use cases that under normal circumstances would have been much slower to demonstrate value.

Some bright spots for IoT are appearing in digital health and public safety. This is particularly interesting given how slow the healthcare sector generally has been to embrace IoT. Governments are also actively funding new development in this area: for example, the US FCC announced a $200 million fund for telehealth investment. IoT devices and applications are proving their value in a number of new ways as governments, healthcare providers, employers, and individuals look to protect people from the virus and help minimize its spread, as well as helping businesses maintain continuity. Examples include:

  • Kinsa’s smart thermometer: nearly two million connected thermometers are now in use in the US, and aggregating fever data from these has helped predict virus spread, spikes, and hospitalizations in different areas across the country.

  • Telehealth/remote patient monitoring: COVID-19 has brought about a dramatic increase in availability and take-up of telehealth/remote consultation and diagnosis across many different countries with the UK’s NHS and the US Medicare program agreeing to fund online patient consultations. Providers are also converting connected alarm systems to new use for remote patient monitoring, for example as Telefonica is doing with their Movistar Prosegur alarm service.

  • Drones: Drones are being used in a variety of new and creative ways to protect public safety and health. As part of efforts to maintain restrictions, police in Madrid working with EINAIRE have been deploying drones in public areas to urge people meant to be on lockdown to return home. Drones are also being used with thermal cameras for monitoring temperature remotely, for delivery of medication and goods to areas of high infection, and to spray areas with disinfectant (XAG in China).

  • Autonomous vehicles: driverless delivery vehicles from China’s Neolix are being used for goods delivery in urban areas and for disinfectant spraying. FedEx is reportedly looking to accelerate use of its Roxo robots for last-mile deliveries.

  • Wearables: Bluetooth beacon provider ESTIMOTE has developed “proof-of-health” wearables intended for employers to give to their employees as part of back-to-work schemes post-lockdown. The devices provide contact tracing so employees can be notified if they’ve been in proximity to a carrier, without the need for sharing personal smartphone data.

On the other hand, demand for IoT projects in many areas will be heavily impacted by the broader economic impact that the virus is having on economies and on overall investment. With projected GDP drops in most Western markets, China’s growth projected to slow to 2% in 2020 following its dramatic 1Q20 6.8% drop in quarterly GDP, and no clear visibility of the timing of the outbreak’s end, access to capital and appetite for any but the most necessary investment will be limited in the near-to-medium-term. This will inevitably lead to a delay—but not derailment—of many digital transformation initiatives, including those involving IoT.

Limited availability of manpower will slow rollout of smart meters and other large-scale IoT device deployments. The automotive sector has seen a sharp decline in demand for new cars with dramatic impact on production, and it’s clear that there will be a slowing in the pace of deployment of advanced automotive manufacturing that requires heavy capital investment, as well as a slowing in the growth rate for connected cars due to the overall slowing of new sales. The oil and gas sector is also suffering from extreme demand drops and collapsing prices, which will undoubtedly impact appetite for IoT investment. Digital signage is seeing a precipitous drop in demand due to the cancellation of outdoor events such as the Olympics and more limited demand for digital roadside and public advertising.

Newly limited ability to call on workers in the coronavirus situation has the potential to—eventually—drive further investment in automation in sectors like agriculture and construction, where social distancing and lockdown restrictions, as well as the impact of illness on workers themselves, are limiting labor pools. IoT will be part of the mix for such solutions. But the reality is that even under the immediate pressure of current circumstances such shifts take time as business processes need to adjust, new devices need to be deployed and activated, and new IT integration and network adjustments need to come into play. Also, governments will be exceptionally keen to support enterprises in preserving jobs, so there is a fine balance to be achieved when introducing new solutions that reduce the need for human labor right now.

There is also no question that the increased use of IoT devices in some areas of public life and public health is raising questions about individual privacy as well as data security. These are not minor concerns, though the extent to which they vary by country gives plenty of insight into different cultural norms. Providers must be careful to ensure transparency about how data collected is being used and stored, although the reality is that the casual passer-by on the street being monitored by a drone is unlikely to be given any visibility of that. There is a balance of trust between populations and authorities, and public security and health officials must not neglect the need to gain public buy-in and to be as open as possible about connected device data usage and ownership.

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