At a time when the whole world is fighting the same enemy, we have all had to embrace new technologies and discover their benefits, although there is still a long way to go. As a result, COVID-19 may well have been the embodiment of the Internet of Things (IoT).

The IoT market, which was worth $150 billion in 2019, is expected to be worth $243 billion by 2021. Remote working, transmission chain tracking, contactless payments, and even a “Health 4.0” were only possible thanks to several IoT applications.

So, what technologies are really here to stay? How can IoT help us in a scenario of prolonged social distancing or in the next pandemic? What kind of technologies should we bet on going back to work?

Throughout this article, we will explore the many different areas where IoT has helped us overcome the worst phase of the pandemic and how COVID-19 has changed our perception of IoT forever.

Remote Working: cloud and remote access

Remote working has been the standard for many companies for the last few months and will continue to be so wherever possible.

Of course, remote working is nothing new, and it was already a growing trend for several reasons. It offers us more flexibility, less time wasted on home-work trips, it allows companies to save on physical spaces, and to have teams working in different locations. Even before the pandemic, the IoT technologies that were of most interest to companies were sensors (84%), data processing (77%), and cloud platforms (76%).

No doubt it wouldn’t have been possible to keep infrastructures running without all the technology we’ve adopted in recent years: cloud computing, collaborative tools (such as videoconferencing software, project management, chats), remote computer access and device synchronization, VPN (virtual private network), and mobile-first apps. And it’s exactly this kind of solution that, according to forecasts, will grow the most between 2020 and 2021.

Smart sensors to measure air quality

Proper ventilation of spaces used by many people has always been a challenge. Buildings often have excessively polluted air, with carbon monoxide, asbestos dust, traces of mould or pesticides, and other organic compounds. But perhaps never has there been so much talk of the need to ventilate buildings as there is now, as it is an essential safety measure to prevent contamination from COVID-19.

Concern about air quality increases as we discover more about the behaviour of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease. We already know that the social distance in enclosed spaces must be somewhat greater than we expected at the beginning of the pandemic. Then it was proven that the aerosolized particles created a faecal-oral contaminating pathway. Now, virus particles suspended in polluted air, collected in the industrial zone of Bergamo (Italy), have been detected.

If SARS-CoV-2 is really more resistant than we initially thought and can stay in the atmosphere, then monitoring the air quality gains another urgency.

One of the fastest, and relatively cheapest, solutions is the installation of sensors that collect air quality information and are connected to an Artificial Intelligence system that can activate and deactivate HVAC systems as needed.

The rise of the robot

For industrial maintenance managers, meeting social distance on an assembly line is a challenge. Many factories will have to rethink their layout to meet all safety standards, while others will have to work with reduced teams. For this not to lead to a breakdown in production, many companies will have to rely on IoT to survive and automate processes.

Robots are associated with the subliminal fear of losing jobs, but the questions now arise: how can robots accelerate our recovery? How can we use technology to protect ourselves from contamination? How can it help us maintain our social distance? How does automating certain processes prepare us for future pandemics?

It is not a question of replacing workers, but of making processes safer, more efficient, and more productive.

Smart robots can be used, for example, to deliver materials and food (as is already the case in some hospitals) or to dispense medicines and stocks (as is the case in some pharmacies). But they are not only with us in sickness! Some companies are using drones to make safe home deliveries. XAG and Huawei have converted robots and drones used to spread agricultural fertilizers into disinfectant sprays.

Could Blockchain be a weapon against COVID-19?

Blockchain is one of the most promising technologies in recent years. It was created to control the transactions with cryptocurrency to ensure that each exchange corresponds to a real value. Once a piece of information (“block”) is inserted into this “chain”, it cannot be deleted or changed and can be accessed by anyone. In other words, no one can sell the same cryptocurrency twice.

Although this was the initial purpose, the blockchain may have several applications. One of the best-known is the use of blockchain in retail, which would allow controlling the entire distribution chain. We would be able to know, for example, where a certain batch of product was manufactured, at what temperature it travelled in the refrigerated truck and the warehouses it passed through. And this information would be absolutely reliable because, as we explained above, this chain is inviolable. We have reached the end of the era of counterfeiting.

If it were possible to control the entire distribution chain, it would be easy to take out of circulation or disinfect products that may have been in contact with workers and couriers infected with COVID-19. Therefore, in a pandemic scenario, few technologies can offer more confidence to consumers.

Stock Control

With the disruption of distribution chains, stock control was one of the biggest challenges retailers and wholesalers had to face during the lockdown, and this difficulty may continue until the end of the year. But undoubtedly, companies that were already using NFC labels to control stock in and out of warehouses have had this task made easier.

On the other hand, the track & trace systems used by some carrier companies have proved essential to keep e-commerce in full operation and to manage the delays in deliveries in real-time. In other words, IoT has become a way to offer a faster and more transparent service to the final consumer. If containment really changes our consumption habits, this could be one of the new demands.

IoT and Health 4.0

Health is one of the sectors that have the most to gain from technological development. As of today, we can talk about “telemedicine” and “interactive medicine” to accompany patients who are at home or who cannot travel to the hospital. Some of the technologies we apply in Industry 4.0 also have applications here – it is possible to interconnect imaging and radiology equipment or remotely monitor patients, for example – and from there a true “Health 4.0” is born.

One of the best examples of this type of 4.0 technology is Freestyle’s Libreview, a software that allows access to records stored in any glucometer of the brand. When paired with a Freestyle Libre, a blood glucose reader that works using NFC technology, the patient simply slides the reader through the sensor so that the doctor can see the blood glucose at that moment. Daily and monthly charts are also available, along with a range of other statistics on continued blood glucose control.

Moreover, for some years now, robots have been used for surgeries that require an almost impossible level of precision for the human hand. Now, “medical robots” are used in COVID-19 detection centres, to measure the temperature of patients, to deliver medicines to those in isolation, and even to disinfect rooms.

This reduces the risk of infecting health professionals on the one hand and saves protection material on routine tasks on the other. The most likely is that, after the “fiery test” of COVID-19, this type of technology will develop more and more.

Big Data in the service of Public Health

“Big data” is one of the great buzzwords associated with IoT. We use this expression to refer to the enormous amount of information that we can collect through interconnectivity, to the point of becoming “unprocessable” manually. Gradually we learn to integrate systems and make decisions based on all the data we have, including during the pandemic.

We often hear about “smart cities” that use big data to optimize municipal services such as waste collection or parking spaces. With COVID-19, we put big data at the service of public health. Countries like China, South Korea, and Australia used big data to create epidemiological maps and to track transmission chains (and in the case of China, also to check if social isolation was being met).

What was nothing more than science fiction 10 years ago has become a reality, and IoT has established itself as a solution for dealing with other public health problems in the future.

A final word about IoT and Industrial Maintenance

On the other hand, maintenance failures can be fatal for those who are trying to keep themselves at bay. If you can’t risk more downtime this year, predictive maintenance deserves your attention. We know, for example, that temperature sensors and acoustic measurement sensors are effective at detecting faults. This allows your technicians to analyze the results and make more assertive decisions about the work they need to do and with what urgency.

Another advantage of many of these predictive maintenance methods is that, when linked to cloud-based maintenance software, they also allow inspections to be made remotely (virtual checks) to arrive at a diagnosis without physically accessing the site. Also, with a maintenance management platform connected to the cloud, the maintenance manager can track all malfunctions and assign tasks remotely. 

What about after COVID-19?

The impact of COVID-19 on IoT can extend far beyond confinement, especially if the virus continues to spread around the world. The pandemic has separated companies into two types: those that were prepared to use the technology to their advantage and move forward, and those that resist adapting to new ways of working. Admittedly, this digital divide existed before, but it had never been so sharp or so decisive.

Companies that have disinvested in R&D projects and technological innovation risk falling behind over the next few years, while new companies emerge as alternatives. So what you need to ask yourself is: which side of the fence are you on?