Smart lighting creates safer workplaces with social distancing data (MAGAZINE)

July 24, 2020
In the time of COVID-19, Enlighted’s MARK MILLIGAN says, gathering data via lighting and sensor-based systems and applying analytics fills in critical details for smart office buildings.

Here we are mid-2020, in a situation none of us wanted or expected. We are in the midst of a global pandemic with more than 400,000 deaths and growing. Essential workers continue faithfully helping the world at their workplaces while many of us work from home. As restrictions are lifted, the questions grow more urgent: How can we return to the workplace safely and not add to the grim total? And what does the new normal look like once better days arrive?

The (smart) lighting sector can illuminate the way. For years, lighting and commercial Internet of Things (IoT) systems have been playing a synergistic role. Ubiquitous LED fixtures provide power and the perfect location for IoT smart sensors. In turn, the sensors make each light individually intelligent, bringing tremendous programmability and energy savings benefits.

But the overall mission was always much bigger: to create future-proofed buildings with incredibly intelligent IoT endpoints that capture and process rich data streams to assist occupants in many unpredictable ways. Some pushed back at the small incremental cost of using advanced IoT sensors to future-proof buildings compared to cheaper, dumb controls minimally meeting code. Many did not. Additionally, today’s LED lights will provide decades of excellent service; thus, the IoT sensory systems that hitch a ride with lights need to be capable of doing more. Indeed, think of what the word “intelligent” means the ability to acquire new knowledge and skills. Now is the perfect time to put new skills to work in smart lights.

Lighting and COVID-19

Back to the current pandemic, more than half (54%) of US employees are most worried about potential exposure to COVID-19 when returning to the workplace, according to a recent study reported in the Washington Examiner.

As employers look to make their workplaces safer, many are searching for best practices to help guide needed modifications. But some are missing actual data about how their buildings are used and will be used as employees return in phases. Where do people typically congregate? What areas may violate social distancing rules? What happens if someone tests positive?

An IoT sensory system can analyze current and past building data. This includes things like heat maps and motion trail patterns to identify densely populated areas in the office, common traffic patterns, and bottlenecks, and can even pinpoint what time these typically occur. Using this data, end users can reroute traffic, move desks, and make heavily used pathways one-way to help reduce employee contact. Planners can see what is working, what is not, and continue to proactively and swiftly reduce contact risk. Additionally, the data identifies where people have been throughout the workday to focus cleaning and ensure and even validate that cleaning crews concentrate in these areas.

More advanced systems go a step further. If the IoT sensory system has the ability to provide real-time location services (RTLS), alerts can be generated automatically when specified to reduce occupancy limits for example, when too many people are in a conference room.

Despite best planning efforts, an employee may test positive for SARS-CoV-2. Once again, the IoT sensory system can do new things, such as workplace contact tracing. While providing anonymity and privacy options, employees wear badges and the IoT-based RTLS system locates where within the workplace a positive individual has been, what other badges they have interacted with, and for how long. This can circumvent the need to quarantine entire buildings of people while ensuring potentially contagious employees stay home. This information also helps focus deep sanitization efforts.

Future-ready smart building systems

The fact that smart lighting can play a significant role in helping people get back to the workplace safely during this pandemic is rather astounding. This was not a planned use-case but is an example of why future proofing is so important. We are now able to equip executives, facilities managers and building occupants themselves with critical data to to keep employees safe as well as help them be productive. Capabilities will only expand into the future, including new apps leveraging the datastreams and and deeper integrations with other employee-facing applications and services.

What was once seen as simply a light source now brings entirely new meaning to building operations. Digitization of lighting helps solve problems we never knew existed. This is a significant opportunity for those who design, specify, and manage lighting systems to understand the full capability and benefits of an IoT sensory system. Just like COVID-19, there will continue to be challenges and opportunities we never anticipated. The technology has already been proven, and if we expand our thinking about what lighting is and what it can do, we unlock the ability to solve an infinite number of business challenges today and new ones based on whatever the future holds.

Get to know our expert

Mark Milligan is the senior vice president of marketing at Enlighted, Inc, a Siemens company. He has an extensive track record bringing new technologies and approaches to market in the IoT, electronic design automation, semiconductor and embedded software industries. Milligan has held executive marketing and general management positions in startups and public companies, as well as providing new product consulting expertise to large and small ventures. Milligan joined Enlighted in 2016 and has supported Enlighted’s software applications — indoor real-time location services (RTLS) and space analytics software and today he leads all of Enlighted’s marketing and communications initiatives. He has a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from the University of Colorado Boulder.

*This column appears in abridged form in the July/August 2020 issue of LEDs Magazine.

For up-to-the-minute LED and SSL updates, why not follow us on Twitter? You’ll find curated content and commentary, as well as information on industry events, webcasts, and surveys on our LinkedIn Company Page and our Facebook page.