Wearables take on social distancing

Published on the 12/05/2020 | Written by Heather Wright

Rombit wearable braclets

Bracelets for port and industrial workers…

In a world of social distancing, staying apart from each other might be critical, but it can be a challenge, particularly in large work environments. Enter wearables.

iStart has previously covered some of the local initiatives such as SiteM8, serving up contact tracing in the form of tags worn by construction workers as part of their safety equipment. Belgium tech company Rombit, however, is taking things a step further.

The company, which creates digital solutions for maritime services, port terminals and petrochemical plants, launched the digital bracelet last month to help employees in construction, logistics and other industries to resume work safely, with the Port of Antwerp the first to use the device.

“It is fundamental that our economy can get back to full speed as soon as possible and that we focus on ways to ensure this restart will proceed safely.”

The offering adds social distancing to Rombit’s existing safety bracelet, which, among other things, can alert when wearers fall into the water. Whenever wearers come to close to each other they get a warning signal, with the bracelet vibrating. The wearable also permits contact tracing, enabling health advisors or ‘trusted confidants’ to check which work colleagues an infected person has been in contact with.

Rombit says the bracelets are designed specifically for industrial environments, where mobile phones are often not usable and the device never passes on the location or other sensitive information to the employer.

Jacques Vandermeiren, Port of Antwerp CEO, says innovation and digital transformation are crucial in times of crisis.

“It is essential to keep the port operational and to ensure that our employees can work safely. We therefore see great potential in this solution.”

Adds port alderman Annick De Ridder: “It is fundamental that our economy can get back to full speed as soon as possible and that we focus on ways to ensure this restart will proceed safely. As the Port of Antwerp we are happy to contribute by taking up our social role and functioning as a testing ground for technological innovation.”

John Baekelmans, Rombit CEO, says the new ‘1.5 metre economy’ depends on reliable aids, and the Rombit Covid Radius has already garnered international interest, with hundreds of requests from 99 countries.

The Port of Antwerp is reportedly looking to expand its use of the device which was tested in the Port’s control tower.

Rombit isn’t alone in its Covid wearable. Canada’s Proxxi has a similar wearable band, again designed to help the industrial workforce maintain distances.

Missing from the party so far, however, is Apple. Despite its efforts with Google on the contact tracing front (efforts NZ Privacy Commissioner John Edwards last week said would provide an ‘enormous boost’ to contact tracing), the company hasn’t made any mores to incorporate Covid features into its smart watch.

Swati Verma, GlobalData thematic analyst, says they – and Fitbit – are missing a trick.

“Social distancing could stay in place until 2022, creating new opportunities for wearable tech companies,” Verma says.

“Wearables have failed to take off in an industrial setting, but an intensified focus on worker safelty creates new opportunities, particularly in efforts to accelerate employees’ return to work.”

She says healthcare, manufacturing and logistics are expected to be among the early adopters, and that if Apple and Fitbit don’t release the functionality soon, employers will start mass rollout of competitors’ technology.

Much like contact tracing apps, the Rombit Covid offering hasn’t been universally welcomed. The European Trade Union Confederation says most people don’t need technology to help them understand how far away they need to be from co-workers, while others have questioned whether ‘creep’ will see the devices being used for tracking people outside of work.

But, as Covid’s death toll tops 286,000 globally, with some 4.2 million confirmed cases recorded, apps and other devices such as wearables could be one way to keep safe post-lockdown.

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