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Can Smart PPE help fighting COVID-19 by providing Worker Contact Tracing and Social Distancing?

By May 13, 2020No Comments

Written by Mathieu Destrian, CEO of Intellinium

This blog originally ran on the Intellinium website. For more content like this, visit

Intellinium, in collaboration with BIANCO (a French construction company), is currently working on a new smart PPE feature (based on Intellinium Safety Pods technology that is powered by Nordic Semiconductor and Zephyr RTOS) that would help construction workers to be protected against the COVID-19 pandemic coronavirus. The first tests on the field will start this week.

Safety Pod attached to shoes or boots enabling smart PPE features

The principle is to alert a worker through a vibrating signal on his smart safety shoes when he’s at risk based on the social distancing (someone is nearby at a distance of about 1 to 3 m). When the worker gets this signal, he has 2 choices. Either he can put a mask (FFP2 mask as standardized by AFNOR for example) or he can move away from the other worker(s) nearby. Based on workers feedbacks, we have found that wearing FFP2 mask during a full working day is not possible. Another impractical solution would be to add to the hard hat a face protective layer that would be worn the full day.

It would also be possible to tell a given worker whether he has been exposed to someone (anonymously) suffering from the COVID-19 virus during the last 2 weeks (which is the state-of-the-art knowledge about incubation time). It will totally depend on a volontary-based declaration from infected worker. Based on that information, the worker can increase his alertness about potential COVID-19 symptoms such as fever (but we know that the temperature is not the only symptom).

For employer (public or private sector), the benefit is to ensure that worker protection is effective even though workers are again at work after lock-down period. It’s also important for employers to provide innovative tools to fight against this pandemic crisis. And smart PPEs can really be helpful in this situation as they bring smart and connected algorithms that traditionnal PPE cannot bring.

For the community, it’s also critical as lock-down period kills economies as the virus kills people. The human and financial burden is terrible and both issues shall be addressed simultaneously if possible. Thousands, if not millions of companies will probably go bankrupt and it’s critical to keep on working while protecting workers. Unemployment was already a problem before the crisis and we must ensure that the unemployment level does not reach a certain threshold that could add political turmoil to the current crisis. Europe knows better than anyone else what could be the human price to pay for extreme social & political crisis and it’s much scarier than the COVID-19…

Data Privacy Protection has always been top priority for Intellinium, and COVID-19 innovative solution cannot compromise on it (the solution shall also meet requirements of European GDPR law). Therefore, this COVID-19 feature has been developped with a privacy-by-design and security-by-design paradigms. For instance, there is no location or end-user name associated with this feature, and all data are totally and defintely anonymised after 1 month. Each worker must give his explicit consent. For those wishing not to participate, an anonymous ID is available which can be associated to a specific team within a given organisation.

There are some public initiaves such as the Stop Covid mobile app on smartphones (based on an EU coalition of tech organisations backing a ‘privacy-preserving’ standard for COVID-19 contacts tracing called PEPP-PT or the ROBERT protocol ?) or even worse with Google & Apple contact-tracing (…). Unfortunately, there are several problems with this initiative (and all other mobile app based COVID-19 applications):

  1. The solution is based on Bluetooth Low Energy (so you need a BLE-enabled smartphone) and of course you need a Smartphone with the right Android or iOS version. Does anyone know how many smartphone fits these conditions in France?
  2. What about foreigners? If someone enters in France and does not have the mobile app, then the solutions is pretty useless because it won’t help protecting anyone. The person using this mobile app will feel safe by reading the results every day but she might have been infected by someone not using the app.
  3. As BLE will probably be always-on, the smarthone battery might be severely impacted. Will citizen be informed about that?
  4. What about the data plan? Who is going to pay for extra data charge? Will it be supported by citizens? By the way, how much data transfer is required/expected for a week?
  5. A huge database will be potentially created, potentially on millions of citizens. It might attract hackers and be a potential threat for privacy rights. The problem is not really gathering data neither ensuring the system is safe but it’s about creating in a couple of days a unique app gathering millions of sensitive data.
  6. Does anyone know about the BLE advertising packet encryption? Said differently, is there a way for a hacker to rogue N-mobile app ID ? If it’s possible to fake an ID, then the cure would be worse than the disease.
  7. Another potential issue is that BLE distance measuring is far from being 10 cm accurate… Especially when you cannot ensure that the device is always worn the same way on the same place of the human body (BLE doesn’t like water which body is mainly made of). So, can we trust a BLE-based distance application on a mobile phone to reach 1 to 3 m detection range? Not sure.
  8. Last but not the least, some mobile app use heat or some questions to assess whether you are potentially infected. Those apps should be forbidden as there are not only dangerous to people anxious by nature but totally inefficient as infected people can be asymptomatic (no external symptoms). False positive rate can break the trust of the overall system.

There are other alternatives based on BLE wearables and we believe that those products can better fit the requirements.

The main advantages of our approach are:

  1. We leverage an existing device designed to resist the harsh working environment.
  2. We offer not only one feature but a full safety bundle through an all-in-1 smart PPE (Panic Button, Man-Down…).
  3. We encrypt our BLE advertising messages for message integrity and authentication. That way, no one can break the trust.
  4. Our Safety Pod is attached to (safety) shoes or boots. That way, you ensure that the worker alway wears his protective device and for the worker he’s confident about not forgetting his protection. As we know where the device is, it’s slightly easier to ensure distance measurement (but of course far from being 1 cm range).
  5. As a first safety barrier reminder, we immediately notify the end-user each time the social distancing is not respected. Vibration is a discrete and hidden way to alert someone. Getting vibration on the shoe ensure that you can feel them.
  6. We also provide a simple way for the end-user to acknowledge the social distancing signal, to deactivate temporarily the system for instance to indicate that he has the right virus protective equipment (mask…)

Although our safety pod only focuses on construction or industrial site, it might also be applied to warehouse to help protection workers in a very tight area (this problem is a real concern for Amazon for instance). It could also be used by senior and vulnerable adults exposed to COVID-19. The main issue for us is now to scale our production when lead-time and production capacity are under pression everywhere…

Zephyr Project