Commercial sensor technology has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 20 years. Though most of us don’t realize the depth and breadth of the sensor network that keeps modern life running, it’s safe to say that many of the technologies we now take for granted wouldn’t exist without the sensors that power them. And now, a new type of commercial sensor could meet us right where we are in relation to coronavirus and social distancing.

Venture Beat contributor Kyle Wiggers recently reported on a $51 million deal to develop artificially intelligent tracking sensors for the purposes of maintaining social distancing. The sensors would be installed in all sorts of public buildings with the goal of alerting people when they are not keeping enough distance between themselves and others.

On the one hand, such technology is exciting in that it offers some fascinating capabilities. On the other hand, do we really want electronic eyes spying on us and telling us to keep our distance? There seems to be something big brother-like about forced tracking designed to keep people apart.

How the Sensors Work

The sensors Wiggers discussed in his piece are small boxes containing hundreds of different components. They track movement with infrared lasers that hit the floor and reflect back to receivers. Signal processing software analyzes the information returned by the laser light while simultaneously removing electronic noise.

With noise removed, the software can determine things like traffic direction, speed, density, and so forth. The software and signal processing capabilities are such that the sensor can tell human beings apart from shopping carts, strollers, and other inanimate objects.

Rock West Solutions, a California company that develops commercial sensors for a variety of applications, explains that the individual components of the new tracking sensor are not necessarily new. Many of the components have been around for years. What makes this particular sensor so exceptional is the combination of components used in concert with artificial intelligence (AI).

It is the sensor’s AI capabilities that allow it to distinguish between people and objects, for example. It is AI that allows for near-instantaneous density calculations – even as people move about.

Sensors for Controlling Movement

Think of the potential of using such sensors to control foot traffic in major cities. They could be put to very good use in subway systems in New York, London, and Tokyo. They could be deployed to monitor foot traffic in airports and train stations. There are all sorts of applications for which motion tracking sensors could prove useful.

Unfortunately, there is another side to this coin. Sensors capable of monitoring foot traffic and density can also be utilized to control movement. Permanent social distancing is just one dark example. Remember that social distancing and lockdowns were only supposed to last a few weeks. In some places, people are in their sixth or seventh month of restricted movement.

Imagine a world in which social distancing becomes permanent. Local, regional, and national governments will decree that people must forever maintain 6 feet of distance unless they are members of the same immediate family. That means no more large gatherings. It means no more public sporting events, community festivals, political rallies, etc.

Commercial sensor technology now makes it possible for human movement to be controlled. This is not to say that we should stop developing new sensors. It is simply to say that we must never forget that even the best technology can be used in ways we never intended. For starters, it could be used to permanently force us to maintain social distancing.