New Tech May Abate a Resurgence of COVID-19. But is it More Obtrusive Than Helpful?

May 28, 2020 by Gary Elinoff

As states begin reopening, new technologies are being instated to keep COVID-19 at bay. But where do we draw a line between public health and privacy?

With many states in reopening stages, companies are producing technology to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 resurgence. And while some of these devices seem like a sustainable way to monitor and protect public health, others seem to push the boundaries of privacy.

In recent weeks, we've covered several of these emerging post-COVID-19 technologies.

For instance, Quanergy has produced a LiDAR solution to enforce social distancing. The device sends out low-powered laser pulses, measuring the time it takes them to return and aggregating data points to indicate the distance between people.


Quanergy LiDAR

Quanergy uses LiDAR to track how well people are social distancing. Image used courtesy of Quanergy

Another solution we recently discussed came from Accent Systems, which offers a contact tracing wristband that notes if the wearer comes within six feet of another individual wearing a similar device and creates a network of contacts.

Other companies, like greenTEG and u-blox, are monitoring for early signs of a fever. This partnership teamed up to build a core body temperature wearable with a heat sensor that notes when the wearer has a temperature spike—perhaps indicative of developing COVID-19 symptoms or another illness—and the BLE transmits data to a user's smartphone.

But at what point do these technologies become more obtrusive than helpful? A few new examples can help inform our discussion.


A Robot That Monitors Temperature, Social Distancing, and Facemask Wearing

SK Telecom recently announced that, together with Omron Electronics, they have developed a robot to serve multiple purposes in the fight against COVID-19.

Using a thermal imaging camera, the robot can detect and alert individuals with a body temperature of 99.5°F or higher. Upon discovery, it transmits the temperature information to a control center via 5G.


SK Telecom's 5G-powered autonomous robot.

SK Telecom's 5G-powered autonomous robot. Image used courtesy of SK Telecom

The device is also equipped with UV lamps and two automatic floor disinfectant sprayers to sanitize buildings. SK Telecom reports that the robot only takes 10 minutes to achieve 99.9% disinfection of 33-square meters of surface area. 

The robot employs SK Telecom’s AI-based video analysis solution to identify places where people are clustered too closely. Once it identifies these groups, it moves to the area and broadcasts a message reminding listeners of the importance of social distancing. The robot also busts people for not wearing facemasks and encourages them to do so.


Touchless, "Anti-germ" Control Panel

Now under development, a Touchless Contol Panel from Alps Alpine is also designed to decrease the spread of bacteria from touchscreens. Although the display on this panel looks similar to the ubiquitous touch screen, it allows individuals to affect control without actually touching the device.


A person needs only to hover their finger over the screen for a response

A person needs only to hover their finger over the screen for a response. Screenshot used courtesy of Alps Alpine

With a no-touch control panel, Alps Alpine has high hopes that those who implement this technology can reduce the spread of the COVID-19 in certain workplaces. Beyond COVID-19, the no-touch screen may also bring peace of mind to those concerned with many hands touching the same screen.

The device operates with a highly-sensitive capacitive sensor that detects an approaching hand at 10 cm, the position of the hand at 5 cm, and the position of the fingers at 3 cm.


The Touchless Control Panel.

The Touchless Control Panel. Image used courtesy of Alps Alpine

Alps Alpine created its own algorithm to process data about the controls to respond to various hand and finger positions. 


A Test for the COVID-19 Virus

Perhaps one of the most promising technologies growing out of COVID-19 comes from electrical engineering professor and IEEE editor, Massood Tabib-Azar from the University of Utah. Tabib-Azar is using a $200,000 National Science Foundation Rapid Response research grant to develop a portable tester for the COVID-19 virus. Tabib-Azar and his colleagues have been developing earlier iterations of this device to test for the Zika virus.

The portable device is a small sensor that plugs into the power port of a user's mobile phone. It then launches an app that processes the data collected on the sensor. A person can collect droplet samples from his or her mouth or from a swabbed surface. Tabib-Azar explains, "We have special molecules in there that ... kind of attaches themselves to the virus. And when that happens, we measure the presence of those viruses that are attached to our little molecules." 

Tabib-Azar extrapolates what those "special molecules" are in a paper published in the IEEE Sensors Journal that explains an earlier iteration of the device for Zika virus. The researchers coated microbalances with aptamers, or artificial antibodies, that bind to pathogens if they are present. The tiny weight change caused by the captured virus affects the microbalance’s frequency response. The presence of a virus then activates electrical switches.


Diagram of how the sensor detecting the Zika virus functions

Diagram of how the sensor detecting the Zika virus functions. A similar method is applied to the COVID-19 portable sensor. Image used courtesy of Massood Tabib-Azar

Should this device catch hold, it could provide a reliable and inexpensive test for the coronavirus, available in great quantities. 


What Are Your Thoughts?

At the center of many of these new technologies is the work of electrical engineers. And while EEs don't get much of a say in the ethics of an end product, we want to hear your opinion on some of these public health-facing designs.

Do you see these health-conscious devices to be more helpful than hurtful? Or are they a neutral force in your eyes? What about these new designs interest you?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.