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How enterprise IoT will evolve in a post-COVID world

As businesses adopt social distancing guidelines and touchless policies, IoT assets will become more valuable than ever before. Nearly every company around the globe has been impacted by COVID-19, and the public health and economic fallout of the pandemic are only starting to come into focus.

It’s becoming clear that IoT is a means to improve efficiency and safety in a post-COVID world. Businesses are leveraging their IoT networks to maintain distancing and increase sanitation, and this is just the beginning. IoT will undergo a significant evolution in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ushering in novel features and increased benefits.

How IoT is shifting

Prior to COVID-19, IoT was most often used to increase efficiency. With network sensors, manufacturers could monitor supply levels and adjust or perform maintenance when needed. Analytics could also provide businesses with the opportunity to examine complex data in real time and adapt quickly.

Most businesses have relied on IoT to make the supply chain more efficient and thus increase the profit margin. But as pandemic-related uncertainty has made enterprise flexibility imperative, IoT has become more agile as a result.

Thinking about health and safety

One of the significant unknowns facing businesses in a post-COVID world is staffing. One sick worker can quickly become a health emergency that shuts down an entire plant. Worker safety has always been hugely important, but COVID-19 has changed the calculus in a profound way.

The newfound emphasis on the agility of IoT technology is being used to help businesses keep up with these new health and safety demands, including:

  • Tracking employee whereabouts: In the event that health officials are required to perform contact tracing of a sick employee, IoT sensors can provide a rapid list of specific employees who were in proximity to each other.
  • Inventory management: Sensors can help monitor inventory so that employees don’t have to. This can reduce unnecessary employee movement. IoT-assisted inventory management can also cut down on the assets that staff are required to touch, reducing the likelihood of disease transmission.
  • Property monitoring: Sensors can help monitor buildings or facilities that have been shut down or that have been temporarily vacated, which reduces the need to have staff on site.
  • Supply chain monitoring: In many ways, COVID-19 has exposed some inherent drawbacks of modern supply chains. IoT sensors and asset trackers can help companies identify supply chain disruption and risks.

Becoming increasingly touchless

The COVID-19 pandemic increased the demand for touchless devices, especially in enterprise settings where sanitation has become essential. When employees are required to touch a surface less frequently, the risk of disease transmission is lowered. IoT is being used already in the following instances:

  • Improving touchless restroom facilities: When coupled with IoT, touchless sanitation devices can become even safer. IoT sensors can monitor soap levels or paper towel supplies, as well as identify mechanical problems. This ensures there’s never a gap in essential hygiene and eliminates unnecessary maintenance operations.
  • Touchless access control: Commonly used access systems can become entirely touchless with IoT. Rather than a frequently used control panel that every staff member can touch and spread germs in the process, IoT provides each employee with access to controls from a secure personal device, an RFID tag, a facial recognition camera or other touchless methods. Such devices can help remove high-touch surfaces, remotely check employees and staff for elevated temperatures, and flag individuals who may pose a greater risk even before they enter the premises.

But as more businesses incorporate this new wave of IoT devices, they’re likely going to come across a common constraint: power. Many people assume that computing capabilities are what limits IoT devices, but power is another significant limiting factor.

IoT devices that are battery-operated try to minimize their power consumption and thus extend the battery life between replacements or recharges. To do so, device manufacturers simplify the sensor, reduce their reporting frequency and eliminate sophisticated features that are power hungry. A larger battery is only a stopgap solution, increasing the weight and cost of the sensor.

Possible solutions to the power problem

Instead of batteries, businesses have historically turned to two possible solutions for this power problem, though with limited success. These include:

  • Wired power: In order to run more powerful IoT devices, some companies have wired each device into their site power grid. On the one hand, wired solutions can give IoT devices all the power they require to run successfully. However, the drawback is that the portability of those devices is then severely limited. So, too, is the flexibility of the devices because they must be placed where power is available, not necessarily where the best outcomes may be achieved. When sensors move or are placed in harsh environments, wiring sensors becomes impractical or prohibitively expensive.
  • Solar power: Some IoT devices can be fitted with small solar panels that provide an extra burst of power. The problem is that the size of the solar panels is somewhat limited by the small size of the IoT device itself. Even under bright factory lights, solar panels can only generate a fraction of the extra power needed. Though they can be useful in some circumstances, solar panels have not proven to be a universal solution.

In order for IoT to become the asset that post-COVID businesses require, more reliable power solutions are needed.

A new IoT power solution: Long-range wireless charging

With wired power and solar power both encumbered by significant drawbacks, businesses have been searching for a new solution: long-range wireless charging. Long-range wireless charging devices use infrared light or other physical phenomena to deliver power at a distance.

Facility managers need only install the transmitter in a convenient area and then plug in or embed the receiver, which is roughly the size of a thumb drive, into their IoT device of choice. In a post-COVID-19 world, long-range wireless charging can help enterprise-scale operations unleash their IoT potential. Some of the IoT benefits include:

  • Constant charging: Device batteries will, simply put, never run out of power. The constant charging signal provides IoT devices with significantly more capacity for power.
  • More powerful processors: With more power capacity, devices will be able to accommodate more sophisticated and powerful processors. This means that businesses will have access to a wider range of features. More power also means that data can be gathered more often because sensors will have the capacity to send update signals with greater frequency.
  • Less service required: Traditionally, IoT devices have been battery operated. As a result, batteries must often be swapped out or replaced. This process requires both time and staffing. However, with long range wireless power, devices require less service. As a result, staff can reduce the maintenance trips and can be reallocated to more vital tasks.
  • Cost savings: Because battery replacement is not required when IoT devices rely on long-range wireless charging, companies and businesses often enjoy significant cost savings over time. Eliminating batteries also has a green environmental benefit.
  • Greater placement flexibility: In the past, IoT devices that required significant power were limited to specific areas of placement. When these same devices began to shift instead to long-range wireless charging, businesses enjoy far greater flexibility when it comes to device placement. The devices can be placed anywhere so long as they have line-of-sight to the charging transmitter, so the primary criteria then becomes effectiveness rather than power requirements.
  • Go hands-free: IoT devices with reliable power sources will enable more businesses to introduce touchless processes to their workflows. This can improve safety and will be absolutely essential if businesses want to maintain the health of their workforce moving forward.

Retrofitting in a post-COVID world

Long-range wireless charging can be installed from the ground up and that’s often the case when it comes to new construction. The technology is already being widely adapted. However, long-range wireless charging can often be retrofitted into operations that are already in place.

This is especially important in light of the rapid changes enterprise-level businesses are expected to make due to the COVID-19 pandemic. IT specialists are looking for practical and flexible solutions that can enable them to resume operations safely.

It should be noted, of course, that for all its benefits, long-range wireless charging may not be the solution for every business, just as IoT won’t solve every COVID-19-related challenge. Long-range wireless charging might have limitations in power delivery, range or other aspects. These limits vary between the various technologies for wireless power and are worthy of a deeper dive.

At the same time, businesses who establish themselves as leaders in the post-COVID-19 world will rely even more on IoT, assuming they can find an effective way to power it.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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