Improving Hotel Worker Safety with Ultra-Wideband IoT

Hotel worker harassment has been a major issue in recent times. To address this sensitive problem, many US cities have established a mandate for hotels to equip their staff and housekeepers with panic buttons. We survey a few RF technologies that are suitable to provide an IoT solution for designing these panic buttons and debate how ultra-wideband (UWB) makes a strong case.

506
Improving-Hotel-Worker-Safety-with-Ultra-Wideband-IoT
Illustration: © IoT For All

Hold on tight while you read these staggering statistics. 89 percent of workers in the hospitality industry have suffered some sort of sexual harassment in their working life. 84.7 percent of respondents to a survey in January 2018 witnessed harassment of other people in this industry. A vast majority (60 percent) of hotel workers do not have faith in their management that appropriate action would be taken to address this grave issue. The #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns reignited the conversation around harassment inside hotel rooms and have forced industry leaders to find a more comprehensive solution.

The industry finally awakened to the situation in September 2018. Hotel operators are working with the American Hotel and Lodging Association to address harassment and improve the safety of hotel workers. Workers will be given a portable safety device (aka panic button) to alert security personnel if they feel they are in danger or in a compromising position. Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts and InterContinental Hotels Group, among other hotel operators, are aiming to implement the panic button at all properties by 2020. Given the different size and layouts of each hotel, the American Hotel and Lodging Association has organized a special task force to help hotels figure out the best technology and device to deploy.

The most important feature of the panic button is its ability to communicate its location precisely and accurately to allow immediate reaction to a button press event. Any delay to provide assistance to the hotel worker could be “too late” to prevent undesirable outcomes including fatality. We quickly survey a few location technologies below to understand the pros and cons of each.

What Room Am I In?

The nature of the issue under discussion inherently requires security officials to know which exact room the worker is in during a panic situation. In addition, the notification latency has to be extremely small in such safety scenarios to facilitate rapid security dispatch.

How Can This Challenge Be Solved?

Radio frequency identification (RFID)-based positioning can be a cheap alternative, but it puts an additional burden on the housekeepers to “tag-in” and “tag-out” every time they walk into a room. Failure to do so can create false positives, like real housekeeper harassment going un-triggered in cases where the housekeeper tagged-out but was pulled back into the room by the offender.

WiFi and Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) are two other well-known technologies that have been used in location systems for a long time. However, they lack the room-level and floor-level accuracy in indoor positioning demanded by many applications, including the panic button use case of interest here. Moreover, they prove to be very sensitive to multipath and interference from other wireless devices leading to low reliability of the collected location data. They are also prone to false detection which costs money and reduces adoption rate.

Here is where Ultra Wide-Band (UWB) technology comes to the rescue. Specifically, Impulse Radio-UWB technology can provide a robust technology solution that can pinpoint where a person is with centimeter accuracy within seconds to the rescue squad in a secure fashion. Moreover, this technology has proven to be extremely resilient in challenging environments (it’s already deployed in many factories around the world), which guarantees very high reliability of the precision data. Getting floor info versus where in the room a person is can make a world of difference in emergency situations.

Associated Costs

The cost of beacons is an important consideration. UWB definitely adds to the bill of material (BOM). But even more important (as in any IoT scenario) is the cost of deploying and commissioning as we need an accurate map of where the beacons have been deployed.

This is where UWB proves to bring value, as its capability to provide accurate location information enables powerful auto-commissioning/mapping, where beacons can self-position themselves removing the need for manual measurements. The cost of manual commissioning/mapping is $15 to $20 per beacon—far more than the extra BOM in the UWB solution.

How Would This Practically Work?

UWB can be implemented in multiple ways from simple Two Way Ranging to infrastructure-based architectures (triangulation, time difference of arrival and phase difference of arrival). All those could be implemented for the panic button use case but one that might be most convenient is the phase difference of arrival (PDoA) scheme. This would enable an accurate and reliable determination of a housekeeper’s location based on room door entry/exit event-based scenario.

In the phase difference of arrival-based localization scheme, a 2-antenna anchor could track the directional movement of a tag by calculating the phase difference of signal arrival between the node antennas. Such low-cost PDoA anchor-tag systems have been extensively deployed by companies like RetailNext to track shopper behavior and analytics, and can also be used to detect door entry and exit events.

floor plan of a hotel room
Image Credit: Room Sketcher

Longer Term Strategy

Alexa for hospitality has been gaining momentum since mid-2018. This paves the way for UWB adoption to make further inroads into consumer IoT devices like the Amazon Echo.

Another way to implement the data backhaul is to use a networked solution already in the hotel room (i.e. voice devices such as the Amazon Echo, fire/smoke alarm, alarm clock, light switches, TV boxes) that could reduce the system cost significantly, and also give the manufacturer for that system (Johnson Controls, Honeywell, Kube) a competitive edge to add value and retain the hotel customer upon a “system refresh.”

Samsung recently lost a significant percentage of business in the US Hospitality TV market to LG.  Had they been able to leverage a panic button system as a TV add-on, they could have improved customer retention. Accuracy can be enhanced by analyzing the received signal strength indication (RSSI) of the signal received at the anchors.

Increasing Safety in the Hospitality Industry

Hotel worker harassment is a huge growing problem in modern hotels worldwide. The associated US government regulations to instate panic buttons present a wonderful opportunity to the technology community, especially those in the indoor tracking space, to satisfactorily fulfill this imminent need for hotel worker safety.

Shiva Swaminathan
Shiva Swaminathan is passionate about marrying his technology background with business acumen to conceive products and services that positively impact mankind. He played a critical role leading the transformation/growth at multiple IoT and SaaS startups including Cocoon Cam, Avatao and Rybot. In his free time, he loves to write blogs on the latest technologies and products, write new song lyrics and play soccer with his son.