CERN technology for safer shared spaces in the time of COVID-19

The Proximeter is a sensing device that will help CERN personnel break the Covid-19 chain of contact cases. (Image: CERN)

In the face of the current global pandemic, CERN expertise has been useful in finding innovative solutions to tackle many of the unprecedented challenges that have emerged. As it becomes essential for researchers and experts to return on-site to continue working on CERN’s scientific mission, there is a new challenge: with more people on-site, the chances of close interactions increase, which in turn increases the possibility of spreading the virus. As a solution to minimise the risk of COVID-19 transmissions, CERN has introduced a new device: the Proximeter that helps people maintain a safe distance in shared spaces. The easy-to-carry device, which also enables contact tracing, adds another line of defence to the now standard norms of hand sanitisers and face masks. 

The nifty device has been helping staff to safely return to work at CERN since December 2020. CERN has assisted the start-up company Terabee SAS to develop the Proximeter, which combines Terabee’s ‘Follow me’ and CERN’s Mini-IoT (Internet of Things) technologies. The Mini-IoT is a battery-powered compact set-up that can send and receive data over a long range, low-power wireless platform - the LoRa network. Using this technology, whenever a Proximeter senses another one within a 2 m range, for more than 30 seconds, it vibrates to alert the wearer that they are too close and need to distance themselves. An added benefit of this proximity-sensing device is that unlike other mobile-based applications, it does not intrude on a person’s privacy by tracking their geo-location; instead it works on the relative positioning of the devices. Furthermore, the Proximeter’s data communication, which is encrypted end-to-end, does not transit via any external entity. The LoRa network, associated infrastructure and databases involved, are all part of CERN infrastructure, entirely managed by CERN staff. 

The Proximeter will help improve contact-tracing investigations, which are usually very time-consuming. At CERN, after a COVID-19 case is identified, the Medical Service has to interview the infected person and the people they might have had contact with one by one, to trace the chain of transmission. It is not ideal when such a cumbersome process relies solely on human memory, which may not be 100% reliable. The Proximeter solves these problems, alleviating the strain on the Medical Service and the people interviewed, by serving as a quicker and more accurate form of memory. Every instance of a close contact is automatically registered and if someone in the workplace tests positive, the records from their device can then be used to quickly trace and warn the ‘contacts’. The back-end software, also made available by CERN, allows for this process to happen smoothly and to deliver timely data. Having a system that works swiftly is crucial: the faster we can trace the virus’s contact chain, the sooner we can contain its spread. 

CERN has concluded a licensing agreement with Terabee SAS for the commercial use of the technology outside CERN. Terabee are currently talking to interested customers, and CERN’s large-scale deployment of the device is a valuable argument for the dissemination of the technology. 

The Proximeter is an excellent example of what a swift collaboration driven by a dynamic start-up with an eye on the market, and CERN technology and expertise, can bring as a solution to a societal problem at a time of crisis.

adds Nick Ziogas who is responsible for digital science applications in CERN’s Knowledge Transfer group. 

The Mini-IoT technology has scope for impact in multiple areas beyond high-energy physics. Besides its current use during the pandemic, the technology can be adapted to create smart equipment like flood sensors, air pollution monitoring, vehicle tracking or for use in industrial standard bridges.