IIoT, Industrie 4.0

How COVID-19 created IoT opportunities in the Caribbean

The COVID-19 pandemic may make the idea of the Internet of Things (IoT) a palatable idea to the Caribbean, which can create new business opportunities for the region.

By Jason Robert Rameshwar March 19, 2021
Courtesy: Industrial Internet Consortium

Connected devices provide an avenue for directed information to create awareness and enable individuals to make intelligent decisions. These Internet of Things (IoT) and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices can create business opportunities by engaging directly in real-time with consumers to provide alert notifications about products, services and processes during the changing parameters of COVID-19.

There is a lack of focused research and reports of Caribbean IoT usage within the health context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Preliminary discussions with regional technology specialists supported this deficiency and noted that the primary goal is the digital transformation process. The net effect of the pandemic was disruptive to the status quo and sensitized the need for faster and wider digitalization through accelerated process changes in the business and government sector.

The research focused on the potential of smart devices (which encompass IoT) during the COVID-19 pandemic in the Car. The first section explored IoT use in health through a literature review. The research also examined conceptual IoT Caribbean solutions as well as the benefits to the region.

IoT use in healthcare applications

The IoT enables users to “monitor and interact” with the changing physical environment through its virtualization with the use of cyber-physical systems (CPS), which convert physical parameters into data. These devices provide a benefit by “contributing to the solution of specific issues such as public health and well-being” through the autonomous collection and transmission of  physical data (light, sound, location, temperature) can directly influence a population’s participatory sensing (a form of social sensing using crowdsourced data). The need to find solutions to enable a safe return to work has increased the focus of using of IoT devices.

This concept of using IoT systems in the medical field is not new and has been highlighted with the development of “sustainable healthcare”, “mobile health applications”, “Medical Internet of Things (MIoT)” for use as an “integrated clinical environment (ICE) framework” as well as the development of a “smart city healthcare” system. These systems required the connectivity of various sensors that feed data into the healthcare system and form part of the wider global health agenda set forth in the UN SDG 3 good health and well being. It had been identified that IoT is a key component to achieving the sustainable development goals.

Demonstrated use of sensors include a color and infra-red camera for “body shape detection for the classification and estimation of health risks”, “smart” thermometers which enabled real-time tracking of health data through the connected app and a thermal vision system coupled with cloud technology that aided in monitoring workers.

IoT sensors - External mounted camera, microphone and status indicator. Courtesy: Industrial Internet Consortium

IoT sensors – External mounted camera, microphone and status indicator. Courtesy: Industrial Internet Consortium

Personal privacy concerns in “tracking and tracing COVID-19” directly contributed to the slow adoption of contact-tracing mobile apps. Personal information is not needed to enforce social distancing in a work area. A wearable IoT device, issued to each worker in a plant, is designed to sense when other devices breach the personal exclusion zone by alerting wearers with a choice of a visual, vibrating or audio alarm.

In order for the wearable (or portable) device solution to be effective, each individual can be issued one and it must be used. This involves the cost and logistics to supply each person (which can become exponential in a consumer based environment as a retail store) as well as an individual’s understanding and compliance to continuously wear the device. Thus, social distancing is only effective if the device is used. An alternative is the use of physically mounted sensors.

Caribbean IoT solution development

This academic conceptual system was developed based on the literature review and survey responses to illustrate the use of an IoT framework that integrates businesses and consumers.

The image below demonstrates the basic elements of conceptual vision system for monitoring a hand washing and/or hand sanitizing station with a visible status indicator (physically mounted on the building as well as provided to the user’s phone application) that either allows or denies entry based on the completed activity as well as the wearing of a mask. The inclusion of a thermal camera and microphone detects temperature, coughs and/or sneezes.

IoT sensors – Internal mounted camera, microphone and speakers. Courtesy: Industrial Internet Consortium

IoT sensors – Internal mounted camera, microphone and speakers. Courtesy: Industrial Internet Consortium

The design can be applied inside the building to maintain social distancing through spatial detection and creating audible alerts that remind persons to stand six feet apart. Machine learning (ML) can utilize the information to develop attendance patterns to inform potential consumers of the most suitable times to visit. This type of behavior analysis is commonly used in retail shops using IoT devices to provide an engaged customer experience.

The image below illustrates the conceptual framework in using mounted connected physical sensors that detect and analyze changes in information from light, sound, temperature and radio waves. The data generated would be analyzed using cloud applications, as analytics and machine learning, to develop information specific to individual’s behavior as it relates to the spread of COVID-19, such as washing and/or sanitizing hands; whether a mask is being worn, identification of a viral symptoms as high temperature, coughs and sneezes; adherence to social distancing; as well as the total occupancy within an area.

Conceptual framework of IoT-based alert system. Courtesy: Industrial Internet Consortium

Conceptual framework of IoT-based alert system. Courtesy: Industrial Internet Consortium

A trigger is generated once a minimum threshold (which is user defined, for example if no mask is detected) is exceeded. A customized alert and notification would be pushed to an individual’s mobile phone, either via direct Wi-Fi or SMS or through an application.

This platform eliminates the reliance of the user’s personal devices (wearables and smartphones) to provide all of the data needed for adherence to the COVID-19 protocols.  Privacy is another benefit as it reduces the amount of confidential user data accessed. However, the focus on privacy may increase the difficulty in identifying the violating person. A potential solution would involve a real-time response (e.g. an audible descriptor identifying and issuing a warning) aimed at the perpetrator, in which analyzed data determined the individual’s relative unique characteristics and location as compared to elements in the immediate vicinity.

Wi-Fi is a cost-effective communication solution, which is essential for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) during the negative economic phase during the COVID-19 period. Each of the IoT sensors communicate with the cloud applications through a wired or wireless Ethernet connection with the latter being a flexible option for physical placement.

Feasibility discussions with Amazon Web Services (AWS) identified the AWS “Connected Home – Telemetry” architecture, which captured the key project parameters. To be effective, the processing of video data requires real-time analysis of the images. The AWS Kinesis is a potential solution as it “makes it easy to securely stream video from connected devices to AWS for analytics, machine learning (ML), playback, and other processing” together with the AWS Rekognition platform to perform the analytical functions to identify activities (as cleansing and sanitizing hands), facial comparisons (for mask verification), people counting (for social distancing). This modular approach, together with the benefits of the cloud application, enables the use of a “scalable, deep learning technology that requires no machine learning expertise to use.”

Real-time responsiveness is affected by the amount of data being processed as well as the location of the computational systems, thus utilizing “AWS for the edge”, which moves data processing and analysis as close to the end-point as necessary to facilitate an on-premise scalable platform.

Benefits to the Caribbean region

Digital transformation and cloud technology usage increased due to COVID-19 and the need for continuity of services (retail and education).  This change in normal operating procedures required a learning curve to become competent in using the new environment.

IoT implementation in the Caribbean was for industrial and commercial purposes (as monitoring equipment) but no confirmation was identified on using the technology in the health sector.

In many retail outlets, solutions as a mounted temperature sensor, hands-free sanitizer dispenser and the use of guards to enforce COVID-19 protocols demonstrated specific aspects of health safety can be achieved with non-IoT systems. However, these systems can become overloaded with an exponential increase in demand, which could cause failures. Therefore, these types of manual operations function only when the users are orderly and controlled. It is not able to adapt to large random disturbances, unlike an IoT platform.

The research revealed specific lessons that can be incorporated into the use of IoT in healthcare including:

  • B2C cloud-based email communication strategy accessed by users’ smartphones via their mobile data network
  • Resilient ICT sector enables flexible and remote operations
  • Technology adoption facilitated through a marketing plan using the recognizable and understandable keywords such as “digital transformation,” “IoT” and “smart sensor”
  • Important information to be disseminated to individuals in real-time are building occupancy levels (with the allowable maximum value), feedback on individual temperature measurements as well as location and proximity to contagious persons
  • Touchless systems (no physical interactions) are a need
  • Design safety needed to protect against unintended consequences (as exposure to EM radiation)
  • In vivo virus detection can provide real-time information
  • Personal data privacy for medical data submitted for analysis must be compliant with the “privacy by design and by default” regulations
  • Research respondents agreed an IoT device is smart, must be connected to the internet and does not require someone to physically touch it to operate.

IoT implementation requires a digital and telecommunications infrastructure to achieve connectivity, scalability, redundancy and to become ubiquitous.  As a sensor driven tool, it is used to identify key performance indicators (as energy parameters of a building or an individual’s temperature). However, it is a physical device that measures the “analogue” environment and pushes digitalized data to various applications (as analytics and machine learning) to facilitate specific services (as repairs to a HVAC system or creating audible reminders to maintain social distancing).

Opportunities for IoT deployment

KPIs developed from the first IoT system installed can lead to the identification of other IoT sensors needed to acquire complimentary data of the primary parameter being monitored (as the thermal conditions of the HVAC electrical infrastructure or the acoustic parameters of a person’s cough or sneeze). This creates an iterative system which increases the quantity and variety of IoT devices, as illustrated in the diagram. The initial IoT system monitors a primary parameter’s KPIs and deviations trigger a replacement or repair action. This first iteration is commonplace within the maintenance framework. The data analytics also provides additional insights into the system’s behavior that can be developed into new opportunities and KPIs. However, the existing IoT sensors are not designed to detect the new performance indicators thus creating the need for the second iteration.  This creates a cyclical pattern driven by KPIs identified through data analysis.

Digital transformation and COVID-19

COVID-19 is accelerating digital transformation through cloud adoption strategies as:

  • Business continuity enabled through cloud services
  • Forced migration for new customers as a proof-of-concept that showed benefits

This was the main driver for the research, which was focused around ICT systems including IoT. This research was initially designed as two sections. The first part to identify consumers’ perspectives and then develop a second survey, based on the results, targeted at businesses.

The novelty is the shift from using personal devices as contact tracing and data gathering tools as well as applying the concepts in automation (as equipment, product and process tracking) to the health sector. Business benefits of the IoT strategy would be reduced human interaction; reduced human error; maintenance of required health protocols; ability to change parameters of health protocol triggers via software; increased value to consumers through health focused concerns; and ability to use the platform for focused marketing and logistics planning.

Jason Robert Rameshwar, M.Sc., Ph.D Student, The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad & Tobago. This article originally appeared in the IIC Journal of Innovation. The Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

ONLINE extra

Click on the IIC Journal of Innovation link to learn more about the research methodologies and the information gleaned from the survey respondents.


Jason Robert Rameshwar
Author Bio: Jason Robert Rameshwar, M.Sc., the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad & Tobago