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How technology can support social distancing

12 August 2020

The world as we know it is changing. The bottom line is that buildings are not going to be able to reopen and operate safely without robust post-pandemic planning for pedestrian movement.

Real people get confused and break rules. It’s one thing to hang signs and tape lines and crosses to the floor but will people stay in their boxes and comply to the rules? Will they have real fear of proximity? Knowing how to manage your space as guidelines ease, or if the government asks you to double down again overnight in the face of new waves of infection, is vital. 

Designing with social distancing in mind 

It will come as a relief to learn that raw materials for greater certainty, and the flexibility to keep up with a dynamic situation over the months, and possibly years, are all readily available. The likes of 2D and 3D CAD drawings for your building can be used to render a 3D model of the building which can be populated with realistic, intelligent agents whose behaviour is modelled by pedestrian movement software. 

One example of technology that can be used to help map social distancing in a building is MassMotion, which is used by global consulting engineers and architects. It’s rather timely that the software world’s ubiquitous move towards subscription rather than outright licensing has come just as professionals across the built environment are grappling with the need to understand pedestrian behaviour in more detail than ever before. 

Its proximity modelling tests and visualises scenarios within computer models. Its native 3D design means that crucial potential pinch points like stairs and elevators are also modelled accurately and can be observed in animated visualisations. Its sheer power means that new parameters can be entered into the model and a new simulation will run to test new ideas within minutes. Proximity modelling tools are used to show how close people are likely to get and for how long and highlight risk areas. 

Oasys added proximity modelling to its pedestrian simulation software and explained that: “What the team has done is to produce a new set of analytics that can be drawn from the software. We have also accelerated some experimental research to give customers the ability to test personal space preferences.”

Technology for existing buildings

Technology such as MassMotion will be crucial in designing and building future structures to ensure social distancing is far more achievable for the building’s occupants. How can other technological solutions help support social distancing measures in pre-existing buildings? After all, spatial awareness cannot be accurately relied upon. 

Currently, personnel distancing systems known as PDS are being trialled around the country. These proximity warning gadgets can be fastened to a person’s arm or belt, or in the case of construction sites, onto a hard hat. The technology can also be added to lanyards or wrist bands. Once the exclusion zone has been programmed, these tags will sound an alarm and vibrate if the wearer gets too close to another wearer. 

This technology will be particularly useful in warehouses and shops, allowing staff in a highly mobile environment to focus on their jobs around the building and let the PDS alert them if social distancing measures are being breached. 

The future of building management

Understanding and optimising how people use space is increasingly recognised by architects, but can it also inform smart environmental and energy management? 

As well as wearable smart sensors for people, there have been an innovation of smart sensors for buildings that detect the number of occupants in a space. Pedestrian movement analysis could be a long-term addition to our toolbox, not just an interim response to the pandemic.


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