(27 Sep 2020) LEAD IN:
A new COVID-19 safety app uses ultrasound to monitor the distance between devices and help users maintain social distancing.
The app, created by a London-based startup, is being trailed by over 1,000 workers at one of the UK’s biggest rail firms.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck the United Kingdom, closing offices and workspaces wasn’t an option for all businesses.
British railway infrastructure operator Network Rail has kept services and stations running throughout.
As part of COVID-19 safety measures, its workers have been trialing a new social distancing app, called “Mind The Gap”.
“We’ve found good systems of working, ways of making sure that we maintain and operate the railway while keeping our people safe,” says group director Martin Frobisher.
“And we’ve all looked for lots and lots of good ways of finding solutions to make sure that we can work whilst our people are safe.”
“Mind The Gap” alerts smartphone users when they come too close to another app user, making an audible beep and displaying a “caution” alert onscreen.
It’s being used at Network Rail in combination with more traditional measures, including hand sanitizer, thermal imaging cameras and one-way systems around offices.
“We felt we needed something extra, because it’s easy to let down your guard. It’s easy to get too close to one another. And using an app such as Mind the Gap, which warns people if they get too close together, if they become complacent,” explains Frobisher.
Network Rail has been trialing the app for months, including at its headquarters in the English city of Milton Keynes.
Frobisher says over 1,000 workers have voluntarily installed the app on their company smartphones.
He says there should be no privacy concerns as the app does not track users’ or gather specific user data.
“We think it’s a good idea, it’s for you to use,” says Frobisher.
“It’s like a continuous electronic tape measure, it measures the distance between colleagues, but it doesn’t track where they’ve been. It keeps no data records, it’s just that continuous tape measure and continuous alert.”
“My mind has conditioned itself to if it hears that, to pay attention and move,” says Network Rail worker Nick Millington.
“Mind The Gap” was created by London-based rail tech startup Hack Partners as an alternative to social distancing wearable devices, which are often more costly.
Developers started working on it in April, in the midst of the UK’s countrywide virus lockdown.
Rather than relying on Bluetooth alone, as several contact tracing apps do, “Mind the Gap” uses Bluetooth to detect nearby devices and then inaudible ultrasound to calculate the distance between them.
The technology does not require an active internet connection. Users can customize their preferred distance or even mute notifications if they’re wearing PPE, for instance.
Tamoor Baig says the app even works in users’ pockets or handbags, but constantly emitting sound does slightly sap handset battery life, about three percent an hour, according to their own tests.
“We’re looking for a very specific frequency of sound being played and a very specific melody as well. So, all the other noise, you know, we just completely disregard it. We don’t even analyse that sound because it’s not relevant for us,” explains Hack Partners founder River Tamoor Baig.
“We’re looking for a very specific frequency and that melody, and once we analyse that, we’re then able to understand what the distance is.”
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