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Creating safe, smart and people-centric spaces in the age of Covid-19

(Image credit: Image Credit: Bbernard / Shutterstock)

Throughout the UK and Europe, life is slowly returning to a semblance of normality following lockdowns. Yet, with the virus still present in communities across the world and the threat of new viral outbreaks a stark reality, it’s clear that we need to adapt to this new status quo and embed greater resilience into our community infrastructure.

The question is, how do we do this in a way that won’t negatively impact our ways of life, hamper economic recovery and impinge on our rights as private citizens?

The best approach is to use technologies that help mitigate the threat with minimal disruptions to our way of life – for example, by encouraging more health-conscious behaviors, optimizing the way public and commercial spaces are used and optimizing services for safety.

Knowing what we know about Covid-19 to-date, infection risks are higher in crowded spaces without adequate ventilation, especially when people are in close proximity for extended periods of time. The ideal technology would therefore provide intelligence to managers of publicly and privately owned spaces by flagging higher risk situations and providing feedback on how effectively the risk has been reduced.

Additionally, in a world increasingly wary of excessive surveillance, the ideal solution would be one that is sensitive to privacy concerns. The good news is that such an ideal technology already exists today – it is called smart lidar.

Smart lidar shines where traditional technologies falter

The most obvious way to obtain actionable information about spaces is to use perception devices that capture data on moving objects and the environments they interact with. With such devices, local authorities, service providers and facility management teams, could gather valuable intelligence that will enable them to manage their sites better. In a shopping mall, for instance, they could help staff identify the most frequented areas, time periods when footfall or crowding peaks, and areas that need increased staffing or cleaning. Capturing such data accurately, efficiently and in a manner that respects privacy is, however, not as easy as it sounds.

Cameras and radars have been used for decades as detection and monitoring devices, but they each have significant limitations when it comes to accurate, non-stop, three-dimensional (3D) perception of spaces. Optical cameras generally produce 2D images. So a person’s perceived size, location and speed of movement can deviate greatly from reality. Cameras also need sufficient light to be effective (making them problematic in the evenings and at night), are easily fooled by shadows, occluded by even moderate rain or fog, and blinded by flashlights. They are also very data intensive, resulting in data storage and transmission cost implications. And increasingly, with features like facial recognition, cameras are being seen as a threat to privacy. Radars can operate in most lighting and environmental conditions, but due to low angular resolution they suffer from poor location and spatial accuracy, both of which are critical for crowd analytics and environment management.

This is where lidar comes in. Lidar sensors build a picture of an object's surroundings by sending out a signal and measuring how long it takes to bounce back. Unlike the radio waves used by radar, lidar uses invisible infrared light to achieve a much higher resolution. It serves as its own source of illumination and thus performs well regardless of lighting conditions.

In every fraction of a second, lidar builds a real-time 3D image of the surroundings known as a ‘point cloud’. The high resolution of the lidar point cloud is the reason why lidar has become an integral part of many self-driving and semi-autonomous vehicles. Less well known is the fact that, in addition to serving as the “eye” of a vehicle, lidar can be combined with intelligent perception software to form a smart lidar system to enable various applications for intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and smart spaces.

Smart lidars can accurately detect, classify and track a range of objects, including vehicles, people and animals. In the case of understanding and managing spaces, they are also capable of identifying individuals and groups of people, tracking distances, dwell times and crowd flows, and flagging unauthorized intrusions. What’s more, this technology requires only a fraction of the data used by camera-based systems, which in turn makes processing the data very quick indeed.

Another important feature making smart lidars suitable for public and private venues alike is that all of the data lidar captures and outputs is anonymous – it does not record any biometric data like cameras do. This maximizes protection of everyone’s privacy while helping understand and effectively manage crowd behavior in a given space.

Smart lidars will transform smart spaces

At a time when safety and social distancing increasingly dominate the conversation, lidar’s potential as an innovative and practical tool is almost unlimited. At Cepton, we are working with partners worldwide to deploy smart lidar systems to help customers meet the challenges of the Covid-19 world. Here are just a few examples:

Capacity management – Smart lidars can accurately count the number of individuals within a space in real time, such as a building, store, bar or music venue, enabling staff to identify moments when capacity has been reached. They can also be used to designate zones and provide alerts when the concentration of people versus square footage exceeds safe levels. This allows for mitigating action to be taken, such as capacity adjustment or reminders from staff.

Queue management – By tracking the time taken for each individual to move through a queue, smart lidars make it possible to calculate wait times and put measures in place when times exceed safe levels. This could be used in retail counters, airports, cafeterias and more, to ensure adequate staffing levels to minimize unsafe congestion. The system can also be set up to monitor space between individuals in a queue, which is crucial for preserving social distancing.

Monitoring zones – There are some areas in a space worth more attention than the others for hygiene or security reasons. With smart lidars, facility management teams can create zones where they would like to get notified when people enter or move around them. Security and cleaning staff can rely on the information to respond accordingly, stopping unauthorized entrance, or implement timely sanitization.

Environment design – Knowing where the most frequented areas are, when peak congestion occurs and even how people move through a space is crucial for businesses and organizations that are taking a more active role in employee or citizen wellbeing. This level of insight can enable them to optimize space design and services to limit crowding and contamination risk. Covid-19 aside, this capability can even prove useful for sales-savvy retailers who want to identify optimal locations for displays and specific products and make the shopping experience much more efficient for customers.

Looking to the future

Those are just a few simple examples, but even after the pandemic has faded from memory, accurate, intelligent and non-invasive perception can continue to advance facilities’ transformation into truly smart spaces. As connected technology continues to permeate the world around us, it makes complete sense that lidar, as a state-of-the-art sensor technology, can be used to make environments better, safer and more efficient so that businesses, public services and authorities can enable more efficiency and normalcy in operations.

The high accuracy, 24/7 availability, intelligence and anonymity of lidar makes it a valuable and powerful technology far beyond the automotive space with which it is most commonly associated. Lidar most certainly has a role to play in shaping a smarter connected world without the fear of Big Brother.

Dr Jun Pei, CEO and co-founder, Cepton Technologies (opens in new tab)

Dr. Pei is a technologist in optics and electronics. Before co-founding Cepton, he founded AEP Technology to develop advanced 3D optical instruments. Dr. Pei received his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University.