Increased safety for personnel, higher precision in warehouse operations, higher speed, no errors. A small revolution that originated in the laboratories of the Department of Information Engineering and Computer Science of the University of Trento and the Digital Society Center of the Bruno Kessler Foundation, in Trentino, is ready to hit the market. This is Janus, a next generation system that allows users to monitor in real time, with great accuracy and with low power usage, the distance between devices worn by people or placed on moving machinery or other potentially hazardous objects. This makes it possible to monitor social distancing but also to increase safety at work, reducing risks for people.
Janus devices are wireless, as small as a credit card, extremely precise and guarantee the power supply of rechargeable batteries for several months. They can easily be worn around the neck, attached to the belt or simply put in a wallet. The device detects the position with a margin of error of less than ten centimeters and can send a vibrating, light and/or sound alarm to the control platform. The system respects user’s confidentiality as personal data are not collected. The decision to invest in the development of this technology on an industrial scale was made by Reply SpA, an Italian consulting, system integration, digital services applications company, specializing in the design, implementation and maintenance of Internet and social network solutions.
"With this system, companies can find out in real time if their employees are being exposed to any risks in the workplace, and maintain compliance with physical distancing requirements to contain the pandemic. This information is important not only for businesses but also in other places open to the public, such as schools and offices", explains Maurizio Griva, senior manager of Concept Reply, hardware and software development partner of the Reply group, specialized in innovation applied to the Internet of Things. "The pandemic has had inevitable effects on global supply chains and has forced companies to adapt their operational plans to mitigate the impact of these changes. Janus is a crucial innovation that aims at making the monitoring of activities and safety at work smoother, safer and more efficient".
The first customers - Among the first Reply SpA customers to decide to use this technology are two large multinationals in the food and beverage sector. The first group is already using the solution for contact identification and tracing and for monitoring social distancing at manufacturing plants in various countries and factories with hundreds of active tags. Staff wear the badge at the start of the day. This will warn the wearer in case of exceeding the set risk thresholds, through a visual and audible signal. The high detection accuracy prevents false contacts, thus allowing personnel to operate safely. The data collected, completely anonymous, are then made available, separately for each plant, in order to be able to trace the chain of contacts, if necessary. After a first successful experimentation, the customer is evaluating the extension of the system to other safety needs and procedures not related to the pandemic, such as automatic and anti-collision alarms for interaction with moving machinery.
Same positive experimentation for another multinational in the food sector, which initially introduced the solution for the sole purpose of containing Covid-19 infections within its production plants. But given the accuracy and reliability of the system, he decided to use it on a larger scale for staff safety. More than just personal protective equipment, Janus is seen as a "safety enabler" to contain risk in areas or near hazardous machinery.
Janus: this is how the two-faced revolution works
The key to the Janus system is the combination of two radio technologies. On the one hand, the Bluetooth which is able to estimate the distance while consuming little battery but with the problem of poor measurement accuracy, with errors that can reach the meters. On the other hand, ultra-wideband (UWB) which reduces the distance error to the centimeter level but uses much more energy. Gian Pietro Picco, full professor of Information Processing Systems at the Department of Information Engineering and Computer Science and project coordinator, together with Amy Murphy, senior researcher of the E3DA (Energy Efficient Embedded Digital Architectures) unit of the Digital Society Center of the Bruno Kessler Foundation, explained: "There are already systems on the market that allow you to estimate the distance, even our smartphones do, which use Bluetooth to exchange messages and information with those around us. However, distance estimation in these systems is conditioned by environmental factors and leads to even gross errors that make them unreliable, especially in situations where people's safety is at stake. So Janus uses Bluetooth only to understand if there are other devices around the user and then, thanks to the UWB radio that uses a more accurate pulse system, estimates the distance with high precision. It is a two-faced system, one for Bluetooth and one for UWB: that's why we called it Janus, after the Roman god with two faces".
"The uses of Janus and of UWB technology in general are many", added Picco. "Many have to do with safety in the workplace. We think about how important it is to constantly monitor environments where there are production lines with potential dangers, such as the presence of harmful materials or moving machinery. But also, in this pandemic period, a device like this is useful to control interpersonal safety distances. Not only that: Janus could also make it to our smartphones. The iPhone 11 was the first device to also support UWB in addition to Bluetooth, but other products from Samsung and other brands are already on the market".
Janus: from the research network to large warehouses
The success of Janus on the market is the result of a series of virtuous steps that have the University of Trentino and the Bruno Kessler Foundation as the main players. The research and the drive for innovation originated in the laboratories of the Department of Information Engineering and Computer Science of UniTrento and in the Energy Efficient Embedded Digital Architectures (E3DA) unit of FBK; the prototype was then developed with the support of the Foundation for the enhancement of research in Trentino (VRT). After receiving further funding from EIT Digital, a large logistics group, Reply SpA, seized the business opportunity and invested in its development on a global scale: the investment is already paying off in terms of efficiency and competitiveness.