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Emerging technology can help workers and companies successfully practice social distancing

(Image credit: Image Credit: Rawpixel / Pixabay)

Emerging technologies like intelligent automation, IOT, and 5G may have come on the scene at precisely the right time.

The Covid-19 outbreak has brought new realities to light that, only just a few months ago, seemed unimaginable. Stay-at-home orders are keeping many people close to home, with businesses embracing flexible working models they may once have shunned. And social distancing – along with frequent cleaning of technology devices, hands and surfaces – is widely accepted as the new norm.

That doesn’t mean that adopting these new precautionary measures has been easy, though. A strict physical distance must be kept in order to prevent the spread of contagions in working environments. Frontline workers in healthcare, public safety, retail, manufacturing and transportation & logistics have found it particularly challenging to maintain a three or six-foot separation from other people while maintaining essential services.

Handoffs from employees to customers are still occurring at curbside and drive-thru lanes. Blood draws, medical treatments and other patient care actions still require clinicians to be in close proximity to patients. And those producing, picking, packing and delivering goods to maintain supply chain continuity and support a booming e-commerce market will inevitably – at some point – come into close contact with colleagues, customers or both. In some countries, stores and restaurants have started to reopen and workers are now returning to offices. And while many new precautionary measures are in place, despite best efforts there are just some scenarios in which it is impossible to fully comply with social distancing recommendations and requirements.

But in the new normal, where social distancing is a necessity to ensure the contagion is contained, how can the number of these situations be reduced? We are quickly discovering many instances in which technology can help workers and their customers minimize close-contact scenarios, if not eliminate them all together.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

Traditionally, patient triage and initial diagnostics have been conducted in person by healthcare team members – an approach which would currently present a risk to both the patient and the healthcare worker. Now, some are being done online or over the phone with a list of pre-identified questions to minimize the risk of potential contagion exposure to other patients and clinicians. This new practice has proved valuable from a social distancing perspective, but has not yet been implemented at the level required to be highly effective or efficient from an operational perspective given the labor resources required to virtually screen patients.

Instead, artificial intelligence could be used to conduct the initial screening of patients without human interface and likewise guide patients to the right direction based on the severity of their conditions. In-person diagnosis can still be conducted, but should only occur if deemed necessary. Artificial intelligence can gain info, process it and provide the output to the patients and care team members via machine learning algorithms, eliminating the need for close physical contact.

The right combination of artificial intelligence and predictive analytics technologies can also assist in optimizing hospitals’ operating efficiencies, increasing asset utilization and maintaining required equipment disinfection.

Internet of Things (IoT)

IoT-enabled thermometers could potentially be used to take patients’ temperatures from a distance. Similarly, patients can take their own temperatures and upload their data via mobile devices for virtual monitoring by their care team. This enables healthcare providers to efficiently collect more data while reducing their risk of getting exposed – or exposing their patients – to contagions.

IoT-connected sensors can also prove valuable in healthcare, as well as retail, to alert people when they are not maintaining the mandated physical distance when standing in lines. Likewise, this solution can make a difference for public transportation systems seeking to maintain a certain physical distance between vehicle operators and among passengers. Manufacturing and e-commerce fulfillment environments can also use sensors to maintain physical distancing between workers and/or co-bots.


Real-time data is essential to tracking both people and assets, either to monitor compliance with stay-at-home orders or the current location of essential supplies and equipment. 5G provides the network bandwidth needed to expand such track-and-trace capabilities. Zebra’s Future of Field Operations vision study revealed that today, just 16% of organizations use predictive solutions to assign the right resource to the right task at the right time with the use of mobile devices, and this will jump to 32% by 2025.

Co-bots and similar intelligent automation solutions

There is a strong case for smart robotics solutions in warehousing and retail environments right now. Employing co-bots to retrieve picked items and transport them to packing stations can reduce warehouse workers’ movements and interactions. And mobile automation solutions that roam grocery store aisles to check for out-of-stocks or misplaced items can minimize the number of associates that have to be on the floor. Of course, intelligent automation solutions could be used to deliver essentials, such as food and medicine, to customers and patients as well.

In healthcare environments, smart robots could potentially be used to take patients’ temperatures in lieu of other IoT technologies. Co-bots could also be used to transport Covid-19 samples from the point of collection to the lab to reduce unnecessary walking by care team members and maintain social distancing. There are similar technologies that are already in use in some hospitals to remotely monitor patients and reduce close contact for nurses and doctors.

Andy McBain, EMEA Head of Regional Mobile Computer Product Management and App Partners, Zebra Technologies

Andy McBain
With over 15yrs Product Management experience, Andy’s focus is on bringing the Android OS into the Enterprise space, having worked on the launches of TC55, MC67 and TC70 for Zebra.