USF Research Associate Professor William Kearns is a pioneer in the field of Gerontechnology - the use of sensors, software and analytical systems to help frail elderly people live longer and more independent lives. Recently, an artificial intelligence system he co-invented to constantly analyze directional changes in the wearer's movements to predict potentially dangerous falls was in the final stages of testing at a Florida assisted living facility.
Then the global COVID-19 pandemic struck and testing was abruptly halted as long-term care facilities came under lockdown. But instead of stymieing the project, Kearns and partner company, Ocala-based InTec Health, saw the COVID19 testing delay as an opportunity to consider a novel market for their technology: Social distancing at work.
The algorithms and sensors that provide the movement data needed to predict falls in the elderly also can help employers know if their employees are abiding by Centers for Disease Control guidelines on social distancing in the work place with a high level of precision - and can do so for hundreds of workers simultaneously. Their new product has been christened iDistance.
With companies looking to reopen their work spaces to employees who never had to think twice about keeping an adequate distance from their colleagues, an unobtrusive wearable technology can provide both a gentle reminder and insights to managers as to whether more training or policy changes are needed. The iDistance technology also can help with contact tracing in the event an employee tests positive for the coronavirus by generating a "bread-crumb trail" going back months which includes every co-worker with whom they’ve been in contact and everywhere they ventured within the range of the iDistance network.
“We haven’t had a pandemic or a really serious threats to national health for many years,” Kearns said. “Here you have a seasoned industrial technology with the capability of helping us control the spread of this disease and keeping people well.
“… It’s really about augmenting people’s sense of social distance. It’s not going to prod someone or force them to maintain their distance. But it will give them an accurate measure of distance and let the know they violated that invisible bubble. The primarily goal is to produce a reliable indicator so most people will understand right away they’ve crossed that line.”
The sensor system employs a small transponder that employees can wear as a watch or on a belt – similar to a fitness tracker – or it can be worn on a lanyard. The core technology that gathers the data from the people’s movement is a real-time location system (RTLS) – similar to a radar system that air traffic controllers use to keep track of hundreds of airplanes at once, only in the case of social distancing, the “airplanes” are people, Kearns said.
The system is accurate to within 20 centimeters (about six inches) and precisely measures the transponder location up to 100 times a second to ensure high confidence in a person’s absolute location on the office floor, Kearns said. An employee violating social distancing guidelines would get a discreet haptic tap as a reminder that they had violated social distance protocols, or if desired it may be programed to text a short message discreetly to their phone.
InTec Health CEO Louie Wise said employers can preset the distance that employees should remain apart – the CDC recommends six feet but some scientists say that’s a minimum to avoid COVID-19 transmission.
Wise said the new system is actually less intrusive than having employees police each other’s distances. Step outside the workplace’s door and the sensors cease gathering information on movement and distances. iDistance only works in the corporate setting where the sensors are present.
Should an employee test positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, employers would be able to more accurately perform contact tracing within the workplace by examining the historical location data for that employee and discover with whom he or she has been in contact. Kearns said the technology can help shore up human efforts in unprecedented challenging times.
“Human beings are lousy at monitoring more than one or two persons at once,” he said. “They fatigue after a short while, and they get tired of having to be vigilant. Many times the vigilance task gets assigned to an already overtaxed person under the category of as ‘other duties as required’. A system like iDistance performs all these critical tasks in background 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. The only thing a person has to remember to do is put their tag on when they come in to work.”
The iDistance system works off hardware created by Ubisense, a global digital systems company that specializes in real-time location technology.
The application is a new twist for a movement analytics system that’s been more than a decade in the making. Kearns along with Dr. James Fozard of USF's School of Aging Studies and Eleftherios Kostis were issued a U.S. patent in 2011 on the software that integrates with the sensor and transponder data with an artificial intelligence system that identifies variations in movement patterns. When used to predict falls in the elderly, the system identifies even small changes in walking that human caregivers cannot readily detect. The invention earned Kearns a USF Excellence in Innovation award in 2011.
The USF and InTec team will resume their original market testing of the fall prediction technology once it is safe to return to assisted living facilities, because new tools for dynamically estimating fall risk are desperately needed. Each year, some three million older people are treated in emergency rooms for injuries from a fall, the CDC reports. In addition to causing serious injuries that often lead to steep declines in mobility and overall health, more than $50 billion a year is spent on treating elderly fall victims.
In addition to putting major stress on long-term care facilities, COVID-19 also has exposed care shortfalls in facilities for frail elderly. In Florida, about half of the COVID-19 deaths have been nursing home patients. Going forward, nursing homes will have to rethink their care patterns to best protect residents via social distancing and other safety measures, suggesting nursing homes and perhaps assisted living facilities may have additional uses for iDistance, Kearns said.
“Once we get past the current events, senior living must be revamped,” Wise said.
“No one wants to be tracked or tagged. But if we look at the benefits, if we have a loved one we want to keep safe, this is an accurate and highly discreet way to do it.”