What pig farmers can teach us about stopping coronavirus with tech

Ecological pigs and piglets at the domestic farm

Years before COVID-19 caused a global pandemic and hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide, there was another coronavirus that was even more virulent and killed over 1 million in the population it infected – pigs. 

Swine farmers in the U.S. were devastated by a coronavirus called Porcine Epidemic Diarrhoea (PED) during 2013-2014. The virus was known to sweep through entire herds with up to 100% infection rates, and all piglets less than seven days old that became infected with the virus died from it. It’s estimated that the virus spread to 5 million hogs.

In 2020, swine farmers are still living with the reality of the PED coronavirus. Different vaccines have been developed to prevent it, but their effectiveness isn’t clear, and some countries still haven’t licensed any for production. Instead of relying on a vaccine to end the spread of PED, farmers have become experts in biosecurity. They limit who can enter their facilities and when, using facial recognition technology to identify licensed contractors and track where they’ve been. 

“It’s a tremendous issue,” says Anthony Novero, a foundering partner in Omaha-based NoveTechnologies. “We’ve got all these things that we’re trying to balance and an infectious disease can upset the entire network of how you put things together.”

“So the need to protect our animals from the human pathogen vector is real.”

Biosecurity is part of the new normal

Veterinarian Doctor in a Hazmat Suit Examining Pigs at a Pig Farm

Protecting livestock from infectious diseases has become a routine part of pig farmers’ operations. Now that COVID-19 is sweeping through the global human population and the best-case scenario estimates for a vaccine put it at least 18 months away, other industries are calling up Novero for advice. 

It’s just one example of how vendors are applying edge technology to biosecurity challenges. Several partners of Nvidia, the chip-maker that is building the tiny hardware necessary for edge solutions, are releasing solutions to help prevent, alert, and investigate COVID-19 infections. Chooch.ai is one example, taking video feed input and analyzing it for signs of illness (coughing and sneezing) or good preventative measures like hand washing and mask-wearing. Another vendor, Malong, offers ThermalNet – a solution that can create alerts when people running a fever are detected by infrared cameras.

NoveTech’s technology solution combines facial recognition biometric identification with autonomous connected devices, a cloud-based database server, and a commercial-grade physical lock. It’s all designed to ensure that without being identified and authorized, no one can access an area where spreading the virus would be disastrous. 

NoveTech’s Protocol solution launched to the market in March 2019. It’s a digital panel that is installed next to critical doorways inside a livestock farming facility. It scans the face of the user with a small camera using infrared light, which it projects using its own sensor. Below the camera, a screen that is the size of a small tablet provides information back about who it has identified and their access rights. 

The system owner determines who can enroll in the system, explains Novero. When that worker approaches Protocol for the first time, their face is scanned and they are enrolled into the system. Owners can provide different levels of access to those enrolled in the system. For example, access to an area that houses pigs destined for the slaughterhouse is considered less mission-critical than an area that houses the animals used for breeding. 

The key to the solution’s reliability is the biometric facial recognition scan. In an industry that runs on paper logbook processes or card readers, Novero recognized the need to better enforce biosecurity protocols. Not only had pig farmers suffered the consequences of PED, but numerous other diseases could impact their livestock and by extension their livelihoods. Working as a general manager for a contracting company that built livestock facilities, Novero was constantly fielding requests from clients to help solve their biosecurity challenges. Problems with restricting access persisted – paper records could be easily forged, and cards could be passed off between individuals. When Novero got his new Microsoft Surface Book and discovered that he could log in to it using facial recognition, it was a eureka moment.

“The original idea was literally to just strap a Surface Book onto something,” he says. “But after I got that out into the real world, I noticed there were some deficiencies with the camera and its ability to work in different scenarios.”  

When your face is your password

closeup of a pig on a farm

To improve the system, NoveTech partnered with Cape Coral, Fla.-based SensibleVision. The firm bills itself as the world leader in “true 3D face recognition” and its technology is integrated into commercial and consumer products made by vendors including Dell, Logitech, and Sony Vaio. Its hardware improved the consistency of reading a person’s face by using a time-of-flight 3D camera, which calculates the distance between different facial features by measuring the time it takes for a projected infrared laser to reflect off a target. Each point of reflection across a person’s face is assembled and stored with a unique number – not an image of the face – in a special database of facial scan templates that SensibleVision also operates.

“We want to make sure that privacy is protected in terms of existing processes and with new technologies,” says George Brostoff, CEO of SensibleVision. “When we create our templates, it’s done in a way that the face can’t be reconstructed.” 

SensibleVision’s server to store the face templates is built to handle the biometrics data for clients, including NoveTech. NoveTech’s backend system that stores data about enrolled users and what permissions they hold is stored on a separate cloud instance, using Amazon Web Services. The Protocol device connects with the servers using either Wi-Fi or an LTE Cat-1 modem, and Novetech can provide its clients that connectivity because it’s certified through the Verizon Partner Program. For telcos, creating partnerships with other tech companies in different industry verticals will be key to their future successes. 

We want to be able to function partially even if we lose internet connectivity.

The facial templates are also stored on the Protocol devices locally, where those users are expected to show up. 

“We want to be able to function partially even if we lose internet connectivity,” Novero explains. “The backend is flexible enough that we could pivot it to other industries or almost anything is really easily done.”

Protocol is marketed to swine and poultry farmers, a niche industry solution. But COVID-19 is seriously impacting other industries:

  • Long-term care homes are a major hotspot of infection. Such establishments are where one-third of all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have occurred.
  • Meatpacking plants are also susceptible to outbreaks, as workers are within close proximity to each other in very cold temperatures. Dozens of plants in the U.S. have had to halt operations and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting revealed more than 20,000 cases linked to meatpacking plants.
  • The air travel industry is working with a new set of biosecurity guidelines and will be screening passengers before flights.

As a result, NoveTech is in discussions with new clients new to the world of biosecurity who need a solution fast. Instead of reacting to infections discovered through testing, long term care and health care facilities could be proactively screening people that need to move in and out of areas that are distinguished by being COVID-19 infected zones and COVID-19 free zones. 

“It could be that if you’re working in a hospital and if you were seen in a COVID patient’s room, the system will restrict you to the ward with COVID patients,” Novero says, giving a hypothetical use case. 

Even after a vaccine for the novel coronavirus is in production, it’s likely that many industries will have a need for biosecurity solutions for many years to come. Because if the pain caused by COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we need to do more to prepare for the next pandemic.

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