Lenovo Provides IoT Solution for All Facets of Pandemic Worker Safety

After the computer company launched its new Internet of Things services division, COVID-19 posed the first challenge: providing worker-safety solutions that cover everything from safe, hands-free entrance to contact tracing.
Published: July 6, 2020

The number and variety of RFID, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and other Internet of Things (IoT)-based solutions to improve safety for employees returning to their worksites is ever-growing. For facility managers and employers, the challenge is to select the right technology or combination of technologies for the requirements at their facilities. In this climate, computer company Lenovo has designed a system out of its new IoT-based solutions division that leverages products from of a team of providers. The system is aimed at easing the process of selecting the right solution, or combination of solutions.

Throughout the past few months, the global computer firm has tested and vetted technologies from dozens of providers to build a solution that includes hands-free entrance, health screening and social distancing among its features. The system, known as ThinkIoT Back to Work Solutions, consists of temperature detection from Viper Imaging, contact tracing from Inpixon and touchless access from Los Angeles-based access-control company OpenPath. The technology is managed by Lenovo’s software platform.

Lenovo intends to be its own first customer, with the technology deployment planned for its North Carolina office space. Last year, Lenovo launched is commercial IoT business group as part of a new strategy focused on service-led solutions. The company’s IoT business offers end-to-end solutions for customers in order to make technology easier to deploy. “We want to make deploying solutions as easy as buying a PC,” says John Gordon, the president of Lenovo’s Commercial IoT Group.

With the spread of COVID-19, Lenovo began training its sites on a set of solutions designed for post-quarantine workspace safety. “We know a lot employees are trying to figure out how to get back to work,” Gordon says, “and employers are figuring out what they have to do the make that safe and healthy.” Gordon cites a survey the company conducted during the past month that found 88 percent of respondents expected employers to use technology-based safety solutions. But while there is an expectation by workers that their businesses will provide technology to ensure workplace safety, he says, “Most aren’t ready to do that.”

“Most building managers are not well-acquainted with solutions requiring the installation of sensors and location-tracking badges,” Gordon says, and questions regarding operability and privacy concerns can delay deployments as well. “We realized people who manage facilities can’t go through that much work” to screen technology options, he states. “Going through that level of effort is a monumental task.”

To address this issue, Gordon says, Lenovo began searching for partners, then tested numerous systems and selected several that will be bundled in a single solution aimed at easy installation. The firm selected technology that he says has been fully vetted, is in use by customers and is ready to be deployed at scale. The technologies were tested at Lenovo’s labs, including its CIoT headquarters in North Carolina.

ThinkIoT Back to Work Solutions provides a hands-free approach to gaining entrance, provided by OpenPath. The system features what James Segil, OpenPath’s president and co-founder, calls “triple unlock,” with three technologies: cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. At the center of the access-control solution is OpenPath’s reader, which is mounted on a wall by a door. The reader features a panel with a circuit board that links the collected read data to the door lock and connects the information to cloud-based software.

Individuals would use an app on their phones to be identified. Cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals are transmitted by the phone for the purpose of providing reliability and redundancy. “So instead of just replacing an [HF] RFID badge,” Segil explains, “you can use the supercomputer in your pocket” with the app. The OpenPath reader captures data and forwards it to the software, which then recognizes an employee’s identifiers and confirms that person’s identity and authorizations.

In a typical application, an individual would approach the door with the phone in his or her pocket or bag, and the phone’s transmission would be captured. The person would then wave a hand in front of a motion detector in the OpenPath reader, and the door would open. “This way, there is no contact with anything,” Segil states, such as a door handle. In addition to doors, the system works with parking, turnstiles and touchless elevators, and it also provides occupancy management. For instance, if a company wanted to limit the number of people in a specific space, it could lock the doors and deploy a people counter or an OpenPath reader to identify and provide access until the maximum number of allowed occupants had arrived.

With the app, employees can be provided with a healthcare form to fill out in order to authenticate their health before they can be authorized to enter. OpenPath was launched in 2018 for automated access-control solutions, and it now has approximately 250,000 daily users. The Lenovo solution includes thermal imaging to identify whether anyone attempting to enter a facility might be running a fever. This feature, provided by Viper Imaging, has been used for several decades to address such industry problems as handling hot ladles at steel mills or managing temperatures at pulp and paper facilities, according to Rich Shannon, Viper Imaging’s co-owner.

Since the quarantine, Shannon says, the company has seen a need for human temperature detection for safe workspaces. This is not a new application for the firm, he notes. In fact, it offered its technology for this purpose for previous pandemics, such as SARS.

Here’s how the system works: thermal cameras capture an individual’s internal temperature by measuring the temperature of the tear ducts in his or her eyes. This is the only spot on the face that correlates to a person’s internal temperature, Shannon says. “We give a pass or fail on that particular person,” he says, and the software then prompts or rejects that person’s approval to access using the Lenovo system. This technology can also be integrated with the OpenPath access-control app.

Inside a facility, the IoT solution can manage the workspace safety. The system accomplishes this goal using Inpixon’s Indoor Spaces solution. Traditionally, this technology was used for other purposes as well. Inpixon has helped businesses make indoor spaces more secure, primarily in government buildings and large enterprises. It uses Wi-Fi to detect the presence of unfriendly devices, such as laptops or other assets, which could introduce an IT security risk, says Soumya Das, Inpixon’s COO. ” We provide mapping, analytics and positioning,” he states.

As part of the Lenovo solution, the Inpixon technology displays heat-map data on a dashboard regarding social distancing, cleaning and other functions. It uses the Wi-Fi transmissions from people’s phones to identify when they are in a specific area. For instance, the system could detect if a large number of people congregated in a lunchroom or meeting area, displaying zones that might need more attention due to their being heavily used. The solution’s audit mode allows managers to reach out to those who may have been in contact with a COVID-19-positive individual, based on the collected phone Wi-Fi data. They can also assign cleaning crews to the infected locations.

Because it utilizes Wi-Fi transmissions, the system can be deployed without the need to install sensors or anchors. However, Das says, UWB technology could be provided with receivers or anchors and UWB tags could be carried by staff members for more specific location data. The location would only be reviewed in the software in the event of a positive test requiring contact tracing, he adds. The system will also include technology from workspace analytics company Relogix, digital signage provider L Squared (for displaying content about safety procedures) and connected workplace app company CX App.

The technology is managed by Lenovo’s software platform, and it can be designed to be integrated directly if needed. “With an API as we bring in data,” Das states, “it could be on our analytics dashboard,” which could be integrated with the other technologies. “[The] enterprise owner has the flexibility to decide ‘What am I going to need?’,” Gordon adds.Deployment of the solutions is currently in the planning phase for Lenovo’s headquarters. In the meantime, Gordon says, commercial deployments are still mostly in the discussion phase. “We’ve trained our deployment teams, with 20,000 field technicians [available to deploy],” he reports.