Amy Creeden
Senior Marketing Manager

A lot has changed in the few months since we posted our blog about the digital innovations kick-started by COVID-19. Since then, we’ve come out of lockdown, been allowed back into shops and restaurants, and some of us have even gone back to school or had a holiday abroad. But things are far from normal. Now, lockdowns have become localised, masks are the summer must-have, and air bridges have become a thing. What hasn’t changed is the need for digital tools to help us adjust to this ever-evolving, new normal. 


So, here are some of the latest innovations that have been designed to help us reduce contact, avoid crowds and kill the virus while we go about our daily lives. 


Reducing contact

One of the first ways that the banking sector responded to COVID-19  was to increase the limit for contactless transactions, raising PIN-free payments to £45 in the UK, €50 in the EU and a whopping $250 in the US. But, while this helped reduce the potential spread of the virus through contact with cash or contaminated PIN pads, it also raises some concerns around card fraud and the security of payment transactions. Biometric cards might just provide the solution to both these problems by using in-card fingerprint sensors to scan users’ fingerprints and authorise transactions without the need for PIN verification. The cutting-edge fingerprint technology links the person to the card, making it impossible for anyone other than the card-owner to make payments, and works with existing contactless and Chip and PIN terminals. With NatWest already completing a trial of the UK’s first biometric credit card in late 2019, there’s a good chance we could see the mass adoption of these cards sooner than originally anticipated. Or, we could abandon the concept of “checking out” completely as Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology, which automatically detects what products customers have taken from a store and charges them to your account, is now being made available to all retailers.   


The hospitality sector is also introducing, and accelerating, the use of contactless services. In a bid to reduce the transmission of the virus through menus and touch-screen ordering systems, most restaurants, bars and cafes have introduced online and app-based menus that tie into their payment and order-fulfilment systems. Hotels are also relying on apps and online systems to reduce contact between staff and guests; prior to the pandemic, Hilton provided the ability for guests to use the Hilton Honors app for digital check-in and digital room keys, but guests will now also be able to use the app to select their room, control the room temperature, lighting and remote control features, check out and book transport. While Hilton’s CEO says “guests shouldn’t view the changes as a sign the company is losing the elements of hospitality that motivate one to book a stay in the first place,” you can’t help but wonder if more hotels in the future will adopt the completely contactless guest experience that the FlyZoo hotel in Hangzhou provides, relying on facial recognition, robots and automation systems to replace human interaction.   


Avoiding crowds 

Both National Rail and the Go Ahead Group recognised that avoiding crowds while travelling on public transport during rush hour might be a bit tricky, so they’ve launched digital tools to help commuters plan journeys that are less congested. National Rail’s system displays passenger-friendly information about busy trains and stations on journey planning websites and apps and will soon provide optional alerts and updates via Messenger, WhatsApp and SMS. The ‘When to Travel’ tool from Go Ahead Group uses mobility data and artificial intelligence to dynamically predict how many seats will be available on each timetabled bus journey on their routes.   


Similarly, The Gym Group is using a “Gym Busyness tracker” to encourage their 692,000 members to visit the group’s 179 gyms during quieter periods. The tracker is provided on The Gym Group app and website and uses live and recent historical information on usage patterns in their gyms to predict and control the number of people on each site at any point in time.    


Some airports are taking a high-tech approach to monitoring social distancing and building occupancy limits by using sophisticated LiDAR sensors and 3D perception software. The technology, previously used by over 20 airports around the world for people counting, emits up to 1.3 million pulsed light waves per second which bounce off surrounding objects and reflect back to the sensor to provide anonymised data about the number of people detected in the space in real time. A change in the software parameters now means the system can also measure the distance between people and issue alerts when social distancing rules are broken.   


Sainsbury’s is tackling another problem that social distancing and limiting the number of people allowed into their stores at one time results in, namely long queues. The supermarket giant is trialling a new virtual queuing system that allows customers to take their place in line to enter stores by using a smartphone app that will alert them when they reach the front of the queue. If successful, the new system will mean that customers can wait for their turn to enter stores from the comfort of their car, a nearby café or even their home. 


Keeping things clean and safe  

Antibacterial hand soap may be the individual’s answer to killing the virus, but we also need commercial solutions to large-scale disinfection if we’re ever going to resume normal life without causing another spike of infections.


Drones have been used extensively during the pandemic to deliver emergency blood products to remote locations and transport quarantined medical samples without human contact; now a company in Pittsburgh has developed a drone that, they say, can sanitise an entire stadium in just three hours. The drone uses electrostatic technology to charge disinfectant as it passes through the system’s nozzles, causing it to be attracted to ground surfaces including underneath seats, railings and arm rests. The drone can spray up to 20 acres per hour and the area can be occupied as soon as three minutes after it’s sprayed, which could make it possible for fans to return to large venues for sports and concerts in the not-too-distant future. 


Meanwhile, Blue Ocean Robotics has recently earned a place in Robotics Business Review’s list of the 50 most influential robotics companies in the world thanks to their disinfecting UVD Robots. The robots combine deep microbiological know-how, autonomous robot technology and ultraviolet light to eliminate pathogens like coronavirus and bacteria within 10-15 minutes in patient rooms and have been rolled out to more than 60 countries worldwide, with enormous success. 


Unfortunately, not every digital solution developed in response to COVID-19 has been as successful as some of those listed above. Despite spending £11.8 million developing a contact-tracing app which aimed to monitor and contain the spread of the virus, the NHSX has now abandoned the original app which was beset from the outset with issues around data privacy and reliance on self-reporting of symptoms. Hopefully this expensive failure paves the way for future digital success.   


Watch this space for more updates on digital developments during these unprecedented times and get in touch to chat about how ORM can help you adapt to these new ways of doing business.