Proximity Tracing with BLE-Enabled Tech Answers Tough COVID-19 Safety Questions

By Jed Rabe, Structured Wireless Engineer, CWNE#280, ACDX#925, ACMPv8

Companies are surviving the COVID-19 pandemic with triage to their business structure and processes. For many, a distributed workforce of telecommuters provided the cure. However, for businesses that must interact in person with the public and are eager to resume normal operations, it is important to ensure that everyone stays healthy by reducing the risk of coronavirus exposure and subsequent community spread.

State and local governments slowly are loosening lockdown restrictions. County by county, businesses are opening their doors. Still, many questions linger about how to safely do so:

  1. How are we going to ensure social distancing within our facility?
  2. What is company policy if someone exhibits COVID-19 symptoms?
  3. If an employee reports having contracted COVID-19, what happens next? How can we pinpoint areas of the facility in which this employee was working, how long he or she spent there, who was nearby, and for how long?
  4. If Federal, State, and/or Local governments set mandates requiring historical compliance data, how will we provide that?
  5. How do we balance safeguarding individual privacy and personally identifiable information (PII) with the health and safety needs of the group?

Navigating Our Way Back with Proximity Tracing

Proximity tracing, sometimes called contact tracing, helps answer these questions. Best of all, it can address these challenges with existing technology – namely, asset tracking and wayfinding.

Many Wi-Fi vendors offer asset tracking and wayfinding within their current product lines. This technology leverages commonly available hardware and builds on software updates from the manufacturer. It runs on wireless access points which have built-in Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons. Using BLE-enabled lanyards, badges or wristbands, the wireless network infrastructure monitors where employees, clients, partners, contractors, students, teachers, and other guests are located.

For years before COVID-19, BLE technology was used reliably for asset inventory tracking. Today, Wi-Fi vendors are sprinting to add new data collectors and reporting engines to monitor and report the location of BLE-enabled devices within a facility at any specific point in time. These robust reporting engines have a user-friendly dashboard and produce various reports to fit conditional requirements. This allows a safety-conscious company, agency, or organization to address the above questions with the following answers:

  1. You can ensure social distancing within your facility by using the technology to alert when occupancy in an area exceeds safe density. Equipped with sound data, you can move immediately to remediate “hot spots” where people congregate.
  2. If someone exhibits symptoms of COVID-19, or self-reports as COVID-19 positive, you can identify which location(s) this person visited and for how long he or she stayed. This will help readily identify areas that need to be disinfected, streamlining the cleaning process.
  3. If someone exhibits symptoms of COVID-19, or self-reports as COVID-19 positive, you can identify everyone with whom that person interacted and for how long. Many of the reports can sort by duration, meaning it is easier to identify and notify who is most at risk of being infected.
  4. There has been speculation that governmental authorities will mandate regulations for certain environments (schools, hospitals, government buildings, etc.). Using proximity tracing, an organization can prove and maintain compliance for those new mandates, using existing network hardware.
  5. Enterprise-class Wi-Fi vendors are concerned about protecting data privacy and PII as well as helping companies adhere to laws like the GDPR and CCPA. Their programs implement different ways to anonymize end-user identities so that they are not publicly known, yet still provide enough relevant information that public health and safety is protected.

A BLE Beacon of Hope

As mentioned above, many wireless vendors already have solutions for asset tracking and wayfinding, including Aruba Networks, Cisco Meraki, and Juniper’s Mist Systems, just to name a few. When implementing asset tracking or wayfinding, it is best to also leverage BLE beacons as they achieve 3-meter accuracy on location if the density is right. If you are solely relying on Wi-Fi for asset tracking, you will achieve 5- to 10-meter accuracy. It is important to note that Wi-Fi can’t perform wayfinding due to an inherent latency issue.

Structured’s recommendation in most cases is to leverage existing wireless infrastructure and simply incorporate BLE beacons as they provide a better end-user experience and can be relatively quick to implement. Many Wi-Fi vendors already include BLE radios in their APs and provide a way to view BLE devices on a floor plan. In order to provide the most accuracy, you may only need to deploy a handful of BLE sensors throughout the facility. And while beacons are the first part of this equation, BLE client devices — the BLE-enabled lanyards, badges, tokens and/or wrist bands – are the second.

BLE client devices can improve workplace safety and provide a better user experience.

While there are many types of BLE client devices from which to choose, the most common are BLE-enabled badges. Many organizations already badge employees for identification and security. Adding a BLE beacon badge or lanyard would address proximity tracing requirements for maintaining health and safety among employees or regular occupants. For guests, organizations could issue badges at reception, keep a record of who was assigned to which badge, and record arrival and departure information.

A Present for the Future

At present, the focus on proximity tracing has been all about how it helps combat COVID-19, but the technology has numerous other benefits. As an example, BLE asset tracking can provide additional security at schools or other public buildings.

Students and teachers would be made safer in a building experiencing lockdown or another emergency if their locations could be known to first responders. BLE tracking technology can provide occupancy data, allowing first responders to make more informed decisions about evacuation procedures or other safety maneuvers. Another scenario could be added security for public agencies or even private corporations that want to monitor employees and guests for safety precautions like those in schools. Clearly, the use case for this technology is greater than our current COVID-19 response.

At Structured, our engineers have been working closely with our vendor partners to thoroughly understand the various proximity tracing solutions they offer. We take our expertise of this technology seriously and are deploying a live demonstration showcase within our facility. We believe it is important for our employees and customers to see this technology firsthand and understand how it can contribute to their well-being.

Proximity tracing with BLE-enabled devices is a great tool for IT administrators, compliance officers, risk managers, health professionals and the general public. Our team is ready and available to answer any questions you may have about proximity tracing and to help you design and implement a solution that meets your needs.