Zebra’s BLE Proximity Solution Offers Distancing for Enterprises

By Claire Swedberg

The company's MotionWorks Proximity solution leverages the BLE and Wi-Fi functionality in Zebra Mobile computers, as well as cloud-based software, to alert workers when they are too close to each other, and to capture events and conduct contact tracing, without any infrastructure deployment.

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Zebra Technologies has released its new MotionWorks Proximity solution, which employs Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), a Wi-Fi connection and its cloud-based Savanna software platform to enable proximity sensing, alerting and contact tracing for work sites. For companies that deploy the solution, including manufacturing, warehousing, transportation and healthcare businesses, that means their existing Zebra devices could help to ensure social distancing and contract tracing. Those without Zebra products could acquire one of the company’s mobile bridge or mobile computing products to accomplish those tasks.

Zebra has provided location-management solutions for years, including its MotionWorks technology leveraging ultra-wideband (UWB) sensors and anchors, to manage the locations of players and balls on NFL fields (see Kinduct, Zebra Technologies Team Up for Football Performance Tool). It sells a variety of RFID-enabled products and related solutions as well. With the recent challenges faced by companies reopening after COVID-19 quarantines, Zebra began considering how its existing technology could be used in work environments, according Jeff Schmitz, the firm’s chief marketing officer. “When we saw governments come out with requirements for proximity sensing, as well as cleaning and sanitizing shareable devices,” he says, “it made sense for our company to jump into this space because we have that expertise.”

The company launched its own preliminary version last month, as part of its internal program known as Zebra4Zebra, to benefit its company workspaces. The technology was employed at the company’s Heerenveen, Netherlands-based distribution center to help enable social distancing by workers as they went about receiving, storing and shipping products. The solution deployed there, which is now commercially available to Zebra’s existing and new customers, has four key elements, the company reports.

One element is proximity alerts that prompt audible or visual alerts from the BLE device, such as a mobile computer, to warn individuals if they are too close (within 6 feet [1.8 meters] of each other). “As the minutes go by,” Schmitz explains, “you will get subsequent alerts” if the individuals remain within close proximity to each other. The second, proximity events, would take place if a worker were detected within range of another individual for five minutes. That would prompt a proximity event that would be reported to management and stored in the cloud.

The third element is contact tracing. If an individual reports that he or she has tested positive for COVID-19, management can use the software to view who has registered a proximity event with that individual in the past two weeks. The fourth involves keeping all Zebra devices sanitized, especially those shared by employees. As a worker ends a shift, the device is disinfected based on specific cleaning procedures and a barcode is scanned to confirm it has been cleaned. When a new employee then picks it up for another shift, the device is cleaned again and only then would he or she be permitted to scan his or her badge, linking it to that device. The software is thus updated to assign it to the specific user. That data can be stored anonymously for all personnel except an authorized manager.

There are multiple Zebra products that could be used for this solution. The device could be carried by an individual throughout her or his workday, with no other tags required. The device sends and receives BLE transmissions to identify any other devices within its proximity, as well as how close they are, based on their signal strength. It then forwards any five-minute proximity events to the server via Wi-Fi. If no Wi-Fi network is available, the device will store that data until it comes within range of a Wi-Fi node.

Zebra opted to build the proximity solution around BLE technology rather than UWB or RFID, Schmitz says. “It was what we felt was the best technology for the solution,” he states, “because it doesn’t require any infrastructure,” making it low in cost and fast to deploy. Companies reopening their facilities need not worry about installing gateways or readers before workers can return to the site. Additionally, he notes, the level of location precision with the BLE transmissions is high. “We believe we have this tuned very well to minimize any false alerts.” Timing how long the proximity breech takes place also helps to minimize the number of alerts.

At the Zebra facility, each employee carries a Zebra mobile computer that detects the presence of others. Workers receive alerts with each detection of another BLE device in their proximity, and they can then look around and step away from others. Only if the five-minute close proximity is detected does the device forward data to the software via Wi-Fi. “We’ve had good results in the testing,” Schmitz says. Management can use the collected event data to understand when employees may need retraining, or if their workspaces need to be adjusted.

Jeff Schmitz

With regard to contact tracing, the company’s HR office can access any proximity events related to an infected or exposed individual, based on the devices he or she was carrying for the past two weeks. Any individuals found to have participated in a proximity event can then be contacted, along with any others with whom they have interacted. (The technology does not identify a worker’s physical location, however.) The data can also be anonymized so that the system will not indicate employees’ identities as their events are reported. If contact tracing is required, though, an authorized member of the management or HR team could trace the individual’s exposure history.

The proximity-event data can be stored for 60 days in the MotionWorks software, but it can be exported to a user’s own database for longer storage. The system also provides reports related to all proximity events throughout a two-week span. “We build solutions for enterprises,” Schmitz says, “and our biggest appeal may be in areas where people already have our devices.” Users can purchase the solution on an SaaS basis, and those not using Zebra devices can select the device that would best suit their needs.

The company has customers lined up to pilot the solution, Schmitz says, though these companies have asked not to be named. Since the technology was deployed internally, he reports, “People feel good about the solution. It gives them confidence and it gives management some comfort.”

According to Schmitz, safety is the technology’s paramount benefit. Because it requires no infrastructure and still offers contact tracing functionality, he says, it will be an affordable and effective solution. While Zebra’s solution is already being used in the manufacturing, logistics, warehousing and healthcare sectors, he adds, “We’ve had potential customers contact us from other industries as well.”

Those purchasing devices to accomplish the BLE-based proximity tracking could select from such products as the EC 30 Enterprise Companion or the MB6000 Mobile IoT Bridge device. “Location is our business,” Schmitz says, adding, “We’ve been experts in this for some time. We know how to build solutions that are enterprise-grade.” Cost varies if new devices are required and based on which device is chosen, he notes.