A Moving Story: The internet of things

A Moving Story: The internet of things

How the Internet of Things can enable Public Transport in the pandemic era, by Harald Remmert.

Across the world and in industries as varied as factories and restaurants to commercial real estate and, of course, healthcare, the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on all of us, wreaking economic and civic destruction.

Data indicates the disease has had perhaps its greatest impact on the world’s largest cities where population density facilitates spreading the coronavirus, particularly when people are living and working in close proximity for extended periods. Naturally, urban centres are the lifeblood of economic activity, which means it’s more than problematic if people decide to leave our cities and not return. One source of hesitance: potential viral spread among passengers and workers in public transport systems.

The unfortunate fact is that public transport inherently presents an ideal hotspot for COVID-19 transmission, and that is impeding the revival of a sector which is vital to long-term economic recovery – ensuring safe and efficient mobility for commuters, students and consumers – and the re-normalising of society. If passengers returning to buses, subways, trains and other modes of public transportation, many previously thriving businesses will encounter insurmountable obstacles as they attempt a return to full operation. Quite simply, COVID-safe public transportation isn’t a luxury – it’s a non-negotiable requirement for post-pandemic economic activity.

Fortunately, an array of IoT technologies continues to emerge, helping transportation agencies and public-health officials address key concerns of the pandemic – from smartphones, sensors, and cameras to modems and routers, security software, and remote-management consoles to provision and maintain it all. End-to-end IoT connectivity forms the basis of attractive – and anonymous – solutions that can help restore faith in confidence in public transport as a foundation of economic recovery.

Supporting contact tracing

Public-health experts agree that two keys to stemming the spread of COVID-19 are practicing social distancing and wearing masks to prevent the transmission of airborne particles. Unfortunately, compliance with these two tenets of effective virus control is uneven, at best. Even with 100% mask coverage, maintaining effective social distance is challenging to achieve onboard a bus or train, especially during peak travel periods. This means passengers may be in close proximity of infected passengers, which is why some public transportation systems are reporting – even in periods with low infection rates – that ridership is far below half of pre-pandemic levels.

© Digi

Part of the solution to this issue may lie in public transportation agencies actively advocating and facilitating the use of contact tracing apps, as are currently in use across multiple countries. Due to privacy concerns, these tend to operate using the method designed by Google and Apple to avoid sharing MAC addresses, but utilizes Bluetooth technology to send out an anonymous beacon from user devices, regularly checking for matches to any positive diagnoses and notifying users about which public health steps need to be taken. In addition, the NHS COVID-19 app in use in England and Wales can be used to scan official NHS QR codes to ‘check in’ at venues. It makes sense that on-board and in-station public transportation technology should seek to support and complement these existing proximity and contact tracing schemes.

On-board dynamic digital signage can broadcast encouragement to partake in the scheme, details about its operation, and information about how to access the app. Free on-board Wi-Fi provision can further encourage contract tracing app participation without the need to utilize user mobile data. Because public transportation vehicles may be required to travel between metropolitan areas with different restrictions placed upon them by public health authorities, digital signage systems which are integrated with vehicle location services will be able to provide up-to-the-minute information for passengers on the current COVID-19 guidelines in the area they are entering.

Dynamic screening and planning

Prevention is an even more valuable step for public transport agencies. Digital health screening and reporting can help identify symptomatic or asymptomatic staff or riders before they enter the transport system. A simple scan from a contactless skin-surface temperature scanning unit, requiring only that people file past a wall-mounted device which provides a rapid temperature reading, can provide valuable information; whether this is advisory only, suggesting that those with raised temperatures seek official confirmation and take appropriate steps, or is used to authorize healthy riders and deny entry to those who don’t meet prescribed health thresholds would be up to individual locales and agencies, based on guidance and regulations from government. By tracking the number of public transport users per square metre inside stations or the number of passengers entering and exiting vehicles, agencies can reduce viral exposure and minimize opportunities for dispersal.

Leveraging advanced routers that facilitate real-time sharing of this information, public transport administrators can help prevent congestion and assist passengers with maintaining an appropriate social distance. For urban transport systems, a combination of sensors and communications technology helps monitor the number of riders per vehicle. A wide-angle, fish-eye lens camera mounted on the roof of a bus, tram or train carriage can employ video analytics software to count the number of passengers onboard.

© Digi

That data is then published anonymously to all public transport users who have opted into the system via the agency’s smartphone app or a platform such as Google Transit who will then know whether it’s safe to board an arriving vehicle. That data also helps public transportation agencies to advise passengers when the next service with sufficient room will arrive at their stop, and broadcast the same information to digital signage at stations, stops, and onboard public transport vehicles to advise on the status of connecting services. It also allows drivers and station staff to make informed decisions about how many passengers are able to join a service, and indeed whether buses or trams should make request stops if there are no passengers disembarking.

What’s more, that same data can help transit managers make better-informed, real-time decisions about dispatching additional vehicles to accommodate additional riders. By tracking how busy vehicles are – and potentially integrating app-based requests from riders – agencies could dynamically optimize their schedule planning based on passenger location and destination, offsetting reduced vehicle capacity by ensuring the most requested routes have greater vehicle numbers allocated to them. As this demand is likely to change depending on rapidly developing pandemic guidelines and conditions, bold, technologically savvy agencies may wish to build-in truly dynamic, flexible fleet and route planning as an integral part of their smart city public transportation services.

Cleaning and paying

The same IoT infrastructure can also provide invaluable assistance during the constant cleaning and disinfection processes required for public vehicles, by recording if a vehicle was cleaned, detecting any overlooked spots, and notifying cleaning staff in real-time of any inadvertent omissions. As with many areas of consumer-facing retail, contactless payments are rapidly gaining momentum. Many public transport agencies have eliminated cash transactions in favor of “tap cards” to minimize the need to touch (and clean) public surfaces and help keep customers safer. Others have gone further by enabling payment through smartphone apps using QR-codes and scanners, and we’re likely to see further innovations in the contactless payment field over the next few years. Paramount in the successful implementation of any remote payment scheme is the secure transmission of financial and ID-based data; this needs to be planned into any system at the earliest possible opportunity.

Technology for smart pandemic-era transport

The common thread for all of these initiatives is real-time data, and that requires a foundation of technology for high-throughput real-time connectivity, sophisticated edge computing, and comprehensive manageability. Ideally, for cost and manageability reasons, it’s preferable for one device to securely handle routing communications, fare collection, security camera data, digital signage, and segmented public Wi-Fi at once. Edge computing resources play a valuable role preserving rider privacy. For instance, when any personal information is captured, computing resources at the end can “anonymize” that data by removing any personally identifiable information before it’s sent to any other node, server, or device. Keeping everything properly deployed, configured and maintained – with the ability to push out updates to hundreds or thousands of nodes when required – requires a robust remote management solution.

An appropriate system will rapidly configure and install hardware configurations across a distributed network, then manage them all through a single, secure interface. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, public transport agencies and authorities have grappled with how to properly deal with infection risks and vectors. But their ability to respond to these unprecedented challenges can play a disproportionate role in a community’s ability to forge a durable economic recovery.

The Internet of Things provides an ideal foundation on which to construct sophisticated platforms to complement and promote contact tracing, enable density tracking, help facilitate dynamic route planning and optimization, ensure secure contactless fare collection, and allow for other necessities for passenger and workplace safety to help reinvigorate confidence in public transport and help place the world on firmer economic ground.

About the author:

Harald Remmert is Senior Director of Research and Innovation, Digi International