BBC COVID Proximity Devices Smoke – How social distancing devices don’t work

09-06-2021 |   |  By Robin Mitchell

Recent reports of devices used by BBC staff smoking and being irritating only adds fuel to the fire that is social distance trackers. What are social distance trackers, what probably went wrong with the BBC devices, and why are they useless?

What are social distance trackers?

Preventing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the top priorities of most countries, and this is being realised with the use of country-wide lockdowns, stopping immigration, and deploying social distancing. However, despite the best efforts of governments, the virus still finds its way around populations, and some engineers have been exploring how technology can help to prevent this.

Social distance trackers are devices that can determine the distance between two individuals and taken action if that distance becomes too small (i.e. violating social distancing rules). Some devices can simply provide a beeping warning while others are able to exchange information with each party and store this data on a remote server. From there, if any one of the two individuals catches COVID then the other is informed to self-isolate. 

Actually determining the distance between individuals is no small feat as most wireless technologies barely provide an accurate result. This is usually due to reflections, diffraction, and power of transmitters which means that a receiver can never truly determine its distance from a transmitting source. Despite the challenges, there are many social distancing solutions already in place, and most involve the use of Bluetooth.

Bluetooth is a low energy radio transmission protocol operating on the 2.4GHz spectrum. Due to its low energy, it typically has a range of a few meters which works well for social distancing applications. As such, most social distancing systems utilise smartphones which generally have Bluetooth built-in, and from there, keys can be exchanged with other phones that the user's phone comes into close contact with. 

The BBCs fiasco and what could have caused the magic smoke?

The BBC, whose reputation is frequently on the line whether it be the stories of a past presenter or the inability to act with respect, has once again demonstrated its inability to operate. Despite the many social distancing options available for smartphones, the BBC decided that it would use a social distancing Bluetooth device that all employees would have to wear. When employees arrive at the office, they wear the device around their neck and then hand these devices back before leaving. If the device detects another device (i.e. being too close), a beeper on the device alerts the user to step away from whomever they are in contact with.

However, it has been recently reported that these devices are not only bothersome with their constant alarms but has also been reported to smoke and fail disastrously. As a result, some employees are refusing to use the new system on the grounds of privacy invasion, nuisance, and safety.  

We don’t know the cause of the magic smoke for sure, and there is next to no information on what the devices are or who makes them. However, we can make some educated guesses based on their function and symptoms, and this is what we have determined…

For the device to be portable and practical it must be a low-energy device, and this is further supported by the use of Bluetooth. If the device is portable, it must also be lightweight, and therefore will most likely use a Lithium-Ion battery power source. If the device was able to fail and generate smoke as a result, then the power source must be able to provide enough amperage to cause heating, or the power source used must be able to fail quickly (i.e. generation of gas and burning material). This further supports the theory that these devices use lithium-ion. 

Most off-the-shelf products that use lithium-ion have decent protection systems to prevent such accidents. This suggests that whatever device the BBC were using was either designed in-house or was a new product that had not had full testing. According to the BBC, they have contacted the manufacturer regarding the situation, but if the product was purchased from a regular supplier, then the supplier’s store would be the first port of call. As such, it is my firm belief that the BBC has designed a custom in-house solution whereby the product was designed by engineers who either have little experience with Lithium-Ion systems or was a product not manufactured by an experienced engineering team (i.e. most likely far east).

Why are social distancing devices a bad idea?

While these devices specifically do not track users or store data, such devices are generally a bad idea and do very little to help. Sure, social distancing mechanisms may help to reduce the spread of COVID, but the effects of COVID and its spread should be compared to the implications of using devices that track and trace individuals. 

We already live in a world where privacy is increasingly hard to get, and while some may not mind the government knowing their every step, eventually it will have gone too far, and it may not be reversible at that point. Furthermore, tracking apps such as the ones released by governments are a stepping stone in disguise; how many peoples phones can we invade without them knowing thinking that they are doing a good service? If you think that governments are not abusing tracking systems such as COVID apps then you should take a moment to read all your terms and conditions, do some research, and see how all governments around the world have always tried to gain access to citizens private spaces.


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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.

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