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Customers sit on chairs at Maponya Mall in Soweto as South Africans practice social distancing. Picture: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
Customers sit on chairs at Maponya Mall in Soweto as South Africans practice social distancing. Picture: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Managing social distancing requirements will be one of the challenges facing many businesses in both the short and medium term around the world as lockdown restrictions are eased. 

Locally, most retailers have implemented a manual process to manage the number of shoppers in-store at any one time, with mixed success.

One company looking to address this challenge is internet of things (IoT) solutions provider IoT.nxt, which has developed software that makes it possible for companies — including retailers, transport hubs, business and office parks, public facilities and industrial facilities — to efficiently and unobtrusively manage social distancing and control the number of people at a facility in real time. 

IoT.nxt’s product, known as Covision, contains people-counting, queue-management and vehicle-counting solutions that allow a retailer or business manager to know in real time exactly how many people are in-store at any point in time.

Covision was developed locally on the back of the company’s IoT technology platform that uses artificial intelligence to monitor the movement of people, vehicles and assets. IoT solutions, says IoT.nxt CEO Nico Steyn, are all about getting data in real time and then making sense of that data.

Led by the company’s chief innovation officer Michiel du Toit, and technical evangelist solutions design Tobie Alberts, the solution was tweaked at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic to meet the needs of businesses during this time. 

The benefit of Covision is that it is affordable and does not require expensive new equipment, says Steyn. Instead, Covision can be implemented using a store or a business’s existing CCTV network or affordable IP cameras. 

'We are all going to have to be vigilant,' says Nico Steyn. Picture: Supplied/IOT.NXT
'We are all going to have to be vigilant,' says Nico Steyn. Picture: Supplied/IOT.NXT

“Historically there have been a number of competitor systems offering some of the elements provided by Covision. However, they are typically not able to use a business’s existing infrastructure which ultimately makes them an expensive solution. The fact that Covision is easy to install and does not require expensive additional hardware drives the cost down significantly.”

Making the implementation of Covision even more affordable is the fact that no long-term contracts are required. A partnership with Vodacom means that month-to-month rentals can be included with existing contracts, which makes it easy for businesses to use the solution for only as long as they require it. 

How it works 

The software streams real-time video footage from the cameras, detects people and tracks their movement. The data is then anonymised and transmitted to the cloud where it’s kept for reporting and analytics. Retailers could potentially even share information with their customers around the least busy times to visit a store based on the data revealed by the software. Data is then transmitted over any 3G network, Wi-Fi hotspot or available LAN. 

A number of large retail groups in SA are now testing Covision at pilot sites. As lockdown restrictions start to ease globally, the company has received interest in the solution from companies in the UK, Europe and the US as they investigate more efficient ways of managing their environments to reduce risks and ensure they comply with current regulations.

In Europe, a large fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) manufacturing company is piloting Covision at two of its factories in the UK and the Netherlands, with the aim of rolling out the solution to all its European operations. 

“The reality is that for the foreseeable future we are all going to have to be vigilant in terms of ensuring our personal safety,” says Steyn. “Not only do retailers have to comply with government regulations limiting the amount of people in-store at any one time, they also have a responsibility to reduce the risks to their customers and employees. 

“The fact that Covision can monitor a number of variables in an unobtrusive manner — to all intents and purposes efficiently micromanaging an environment — will greatly assist businesses and retailers to responsibly meet their regulatory and social responsibility requirements,” he says.

This article was paid for by IoT.nxt.