Within the span of a few months, the rapid spread of COVID-19 has upended lives, businesses, and economies everywhere. Suddenly the health and safety of our families, friends, and communities have become our top priority. The threat of COVID-19 hits both close to home and worldwide. And tackling this unprecedented challenge will require our collective efforts and ingenuity on a global scale.
Looking back in history at past pandemics, from the century-old Spanish flu to the more recent 2009 swine flu, we immediately see the major advantage we’ve gained over the past four decades: access to advanced technology.
Vast amounts of information stream around the globe every second in the form of ones and zeroes passing through countless solid-state transistors, fiber cables and wirelessly through the air. Leveraging the incalculable power of the Internet, we are able to make data-driven decisions, share information and insight instantaneously and learn from each other as we take necessary precautions to protect ourselves from the spread of COVID-19. Simply put, we have more information technologies and tools available to address the COVID-19 pandemic challenge than we ever did in the past.
The World Health Organization’s pandemic declaration resulted in immediate “stay at home” and “work from home” policies in countries and communities around the globe. The pandemic is also showing us how technology can help in a crisis when we need it the most. At a time when we are choosing between risking our lives to keep economic wheels spinning or paralyzing our productive means to quarantine and stay safe, the Internet of Things (IoT) can provide a third favorable option.
Keeping the Factory Lights On
While VoIP software, streaming services, and information technologies are undoubtedly enabling productivity, connectivity, and entertainment during this crisis, the IoT is helping us as well. For example, from an industrial perspective, remotely controlling and monitoring factory equipment is analogous to video conferencing -- but at a higher level of connectivity.
In its simplest form, the IoT today can be used to track smart thermostat readings in an engineering lab, monitoring the temperature of equipment and machinery to prevent failures or faults during the absence of human operators. The IoT is also enabling smart cities by helping to sustain utility grids and guarantee that the public’s electricity, water, and gas requirements are met while avoiding the risk of sending technicians to the field unless necessary.
The Silicon Labs RF firmware team uses IoT technology to run regression testing on our wireless hardware with automated test benches. Reliable microcontrollers are managing newly developed SoCs to detect code or hardware issues. Without IoT connectivity, an engineer would need to visit the lab, potentially risking infection.
There is an abundance of other examples where engineers are using wireless embedded technology to keep the workflow going. The IoT, for example, is enabling remote design and testing from home. Yet, there is still room for improvement. For instance, testing new chips coming back from the foundry still requires a fair amount of hands-on labor, including soldering different electrical components to the board, going through several iterations to optimize the hardware design, and connecting the chip to different test benches.
Automating Essential Businesses
One of the biggest concerns during the pandemic is the availability of groceries, fresh produce, and basic consumer supplies. IoT smart shelves can enable a more efficient shopping experience and enhance health and safety for everyone. While it might sound like a trivial task, monitoring shelf inventories and price tags and informing customers on alternative products can put human lives at risk. Retail workers often put in long hours and must interact with shoppers at a time when we are required to practice social distancing. A more autonomous, smarter retail environment with electronic shelf label (ESL) technology helps ease the manual, in-person workload by using IoT technology to monitor and track products on the shelves.
Active monitoring of supplies and consumer consumption can help grocery stores keep their shelves full. For example, if retailers know the hours with peak demand for staples, they can plan to have ample supplies on the shelves during those times. These IoT-enabled approaches ultimately improve inventory management and stocking, which in turn helps reduce the panic effect that empty shelves have on customers.
Maintaining Robust Internet Bandwidth
As people spend more time at home, their at-home lifestyles will evolve. Home is not only a place to relax after a long, hard day at work, it has become an office as well for many of us. Home comfort, convenience, and connectivity are at the heart of what the IoT can offer. Smart home sensors, connected lights, security cameras, and voice assistants help those of us working at homestay focused and productive, though they also serve as an important and entertaining distraction for people who are looking for DIY smart home projects around the house to enhance the day-to-day home living experiences.
None of these smart home technologies will function without powerful and uninterrupted broadband networks and wireless service, making Internet infrastructure technologies and 5G expansion crucial for the future. Timing technology (clocks and oscillators) is essential for high-performance 5G networks, which in the near future will provide enough bandwidth to enable a transformative mobile experience and truly autonomous vehicles. The COVID19 pandemic is showing us how much we have achieved in a matter of months, and how we can work together to remain productive and serve humanity. It is a reminder that we are on the right track, but we have a vital responsibility to remain committed to innovating to make the world a better and safer place.
However difficult and tragic, the pandemic provides an opportunity to enable our companies, industries, communities, and institutions to withstand such hardship and ensure we are better prepared in the future. We are all working as hard as possible to evolve technology while providing immediate and practical solutions to the challenges we all face during this pandemic.
The IoT provides us with many opportunities to innovate. While we all hope this crisis will end soon and we won’t have to deal with another pandemic in the future, imagine the possibilities that mature IoT technologies can enable for years to come. All we need to do is stay focused and committed to innovation and quality production of this remarkable connected technology.