With the focus firmly on getting students back into full-time education, colleges and universities are under pressure to come up with solutions in the face of more local lockdowns and increases in COVID-19 cases. At the same time, they are feeling significant pressure on their finances. So, like any other business right now, they are keen to take measures to help weather the storm and get back to some form of normal, while recognising that we all need to be prepared for cluster outbreaks and new pandemics in the future.
Despite disappointment in the national track and trace app, there is an acceptance that technology has an important part to play in adapting to these challenging times. One of the emerging technologies that may provide one of the answers for universities and colleges is mobile mesh networking. A mobile mesh harnesses the power of peoples’ mobile devices by connecting smartphones directly to other smartphones and other internet connected devices without the need for cellular 4G/5G or wifi. Data simply finds the quickest and easiest route by hopping between phones, powered by existing or new university- or college-branded mobile apps, which all students, staff and visitors would be required to download.
Each smartphone can connect with up to six other devices within range and each of those six other devices can connect to up to another six devices, and so on, creating a mass, expansive, robust, self-healing and resilient mesh network through multi-hop routing. This means that real-time messages and notifications can be sent to all people on site to provide up-to-date advice and guidance on wearing a face mask or using hand sanitiser for example, along with safety information in the case of an incident or emergency.
Virtual geozones and social distancing
The other major feature of this new mobile mesh technology is the ability to create geozones – virtual walls to contain the mesh, which could be around a complete site or campus, or around lecture theatres or classrooms, for example. It is also possible to create one or two metre personal geozones around individuals – or more specifically, their smartphones.
This opens up a wide range of applications previously not possible. For example, the mesh network can provide digital access management to buildings or restricted areas within a building.
Analysis of data and the use of graphical ‘heat maps’ to provide visualisation of patterns of movement on campus, can also be used to make informed decisions on timetabling and room changes, as well as making adjustments to layout or practices to avoid unintentional close contact. And, by integrating a mesh network of smartphones and devices, administrators can better manage and understand the effectiveness of practical measures such as hand sanitising.
Students, staff and visitors can also get automatic alerts if they are breaking social distancing rules. And, critically, dependent on university policy and privacy laws, if anyone develops COVID-19 symptoms or is tested positive, the system can be used to notify those who have been in close contact so they can self-isolate or get tested. Data security and privacy are paramount so, importantly, all data is fully anonymised and only smartphones with the app installed that are inside the university geozone are meshed together. As the smartphone leaves the geozone, it is automatically disconnected.
Back to student life
As well as providing valuable and timely safety information, a mesh network can also be used to deliver information on student entertainment, sporting and club activities and special offers in shops, cafés and restaurants, enhancing students’ campus experience. By supporting safe learning and extracurricular activities, universities can restore confidence and students can start to learn again.