April 2020

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COVID-19 Lockdown Leaves Empty Smart Buildings to Ponder Their Failings

While we can excuse the technology for being as unprepared as the humans who made it, this strange reality we find ourselves living in poses a new challenge for the smart building industry to adapt its intelligence to.
James McHale

James McHale,
Managing Director,


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Through the latest Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, our smart commercial buildings promise to improve the health, wellbeing, and safety of their occupants like never before. Yet, as Europe goes into lockdown, the majority of the continent’s commercial real-estate sits empty, offering few answers to the novel dangers brought up by the COVID-19 pandemic. While we can excuse the technology for being as unprepared as the humans who made it, this strange reality we find ourselves living in poses a new challenge for the smart building industry to adapt its intelligence to.

To date, the smart building’s health applications have focused on maintaining the best indoor temperature for occupants, developing lighting in tune with the human circadian rhythm, or improving air quality with sensors-enabled ventilation. While all these systems do support general health and, therefore, an improved ability to fight disease, they do not help control the spread of coronavirus. With many experts claiming that this kind of pandemic may become more common in the decades ahead, the smart building may need to start looking into its in-depth toolkit to see how it can help.

In the UAE, large malls and supermarkets are now installing airport-style thermal scanners to identify people with fever, a common symptom of the strain of coronavirus currently spreading the world. Retailers and hotels swung into action yesterday after meetings between business leaders and government officials. In Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, more than 20 thermal cameras were placed in eight malls managed by the same company.

“Medical centers, hospitals, airports and railway terminals have become emerging applications for thermal cameras. A thermal camera with temperature control can be used to measure people’s temperatures and spot fevers without using intrusive devices,” says Jennifer Hackenburg, senior product marketing manager for Dahua Technology USA. “This remote way of monitoring potential signs of infection reduces the risk of further contamination.”

“For years, going back to the SARS outbreak and others, FLIR technology has been incorporated into ports and borders and airports and other places to look for elevated body temperatures,” said Jim Cannon, CEO of thermal imaging firm FLIR. “We have seen a significant increase in those orders in the past month. Right now, we’re working really hard to ensure that we have the supply chain to meet all of that demand.”

Thermal cameras can identify individuals with elevated body temperatures, a sure sign of a fever that may be part of a coronavirus infection. However, as one of the following symptoms, these thermal camera systems are still approving entry for many infected people. Spotting someone with a fever in the current climate merely is identifying those that should already be tested, quarantined, and seeking medical care. It is good to identify them, but it is not doing that much to slow the spread of this virus. Public health education and lockdown measures have been necessary, which will soon leave the UAE’s malls empty and their new cameras idle.

“You can do amazing things with thermal cameras. But also it’s about understanding the technology and not making assumptions on what it can do,” advises Ryan Zatolokin, senior technologist, North America, at camera specialists Axis Communications. “Once you understand the technology, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities in terms of detection. It’s about understanding and setting the proper expectations with your customers. You’ll be very successful if you do that correctly.”

Empty Buildings

Identifying infectious people is one approach; another is killing the virus itself. A recent US government study found that the virus could be detected in aerosols up to 3 hours post aerosolization, up to 4 hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless steel. When someone touches an infected surface with their hand, they can pass the virus on to other surfaces and infect themselves if they feel their face or something that will go into their body, such as food. Making old fashioned surface cleaning a key strategy.

“Smart cleaning” — indoor cleaning that is supported by smart technology — is more often than not focused on making cleaning schedules more efficient to increase the productivity of cleaners and reduce costs. Utilizing occupancy sensors to know where people have been and what needs cleaning is also a potentially useful method for minimizing infected surfaces; however, the virality of the COVID-19 strain means that blanket disinfection processes are generally required, even if busy areas get more attention.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]UV light sanitizing, where intense UV light emissions are used to “fry” viruses on all exposed surfaces, has potential. Still, the immaturity of the technology, the dangers of human exposure, and the reduced ability to disinfect dark corners of the building pose challenges. Strategic positioning of lights and fundamental redesign of indoor spaces to allow for UV exposure could offer promise in the future but is too much to help address the current crisis.

“UV disinfection is widely used in hospitals worldwide after patients have left a room, for antimicrobial-resistant pathogens, tuberculosis, and other infectious agents,” says Paul Tambyah, president of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection. While Qin Jin, deputy general manager at Shanghai public transport firm Yanggao, who has actively considered the use of UV light sanitation, commented, “after the epidemic happened, we were actively searching for a more efficient disinfection method. The problem with this was that it might not reach certain corners.”

While the building may not have found the perfect smart solution to our coronavirus woes, some dormant and slowly-emerging technologies may have been given a timely boost as we search for a way to prepare ourselves for future outbreaks. For now, however, we will have to rely on “social distancing,” public hygiene education, and traditional dumb cleaning methods.

“The good thing about COVID-19 is that it does not require any unique cleaning chemicals to disinfect hands and surfaces,” says Andrew Janowski, an infectious disease expert at Washington University School of Medicine and St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “Good old fashioned soap and water does the trick.”


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