OCALA, Fla. – USF Research Associate Professor William Kearns is a pioneer in the field of Gerontechnology - the use of sensors, software and analytical systems to help frail elderly people live longer and more independent lives. Recently, an artificial intelligence system he co-invented to constantly analyze directional changes in the wearer's movements to predict potentially dangerous falls was in the final stages of testing at a Florida assisted living facility.
Then the global COVID-19 pandemic struck and testing was abruptly halted as long-term care facilities came under lockdown. But instead of stymieing the project, Kearns and partner company, Ocala-based InTec Health, saw the COVID19 testing delay as an opportunity to consider a novel market for their technology: Social distancing at work.
The algorithms and sensors that provide the movement data needed to predict falls in the elderly also can help employers know if their employees are abiding by Centers for Disease Control guidelines on social distancing in the work place with a high level of precision - and can do so for hundreds of workers simultaneously. Their new product has been christened iDistance.
With companies looking to reopen their work spaces to employees who never had to think twice about keeping an adequate distance from their colleagues, an unobtrusive wearable technology can provide both a gentle reminder and insights to managers as to whether more training or policy changes are needed. The iDistance technology also can help with contact tracing in the event an employee tests positive for the coronavirus by generating a "bread-crumb trail" going back months which includes every co-worker with whom they’ve been in contact and everywhere they ventured within the range of the iDistance network.
“We haven’t had a pandemic or a really serious threats to national health for many years,” Kearns said. “Here you have a seasoned industrial technology with the capability of helping us control the spread of this disease and keeping people well.
“… It’s really about augmenting people’s sense of social distance. It’s not going to prod someone or force them to maintain their distance. But it will give them an accurate measure of distance and let the know they violated that invisible bubble. The primarily goal is to produce a reliable indicator so most people will understand right away they’ve crossed that line.”
The sensor system employs a small transponder that employees can wear as a watch or on a belt – similar to a fitness tracker – or it can be worn on a lanyard. The core technology that gathers the data from the people’s movement is a real-time location system (RTLS) – similar to a radar system that air traffic controllers use to keep track of hundreds of airplanes at once, only in the case of social distancing, the “airplanes” are people, Kearns said.
The system is accurate to within 20 centimeters (about six inches) and precisely measures the transponder location up to 100 times a second to ensure high confidence in a person’s absolute location on the office floor, Kearns said. An employee violating social distancing guidelines would get a discreet haptic tap as a reminder that they had violated social distance protocols, or if desired it may be programed to text a short message discreetly to their phone.