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Otis is Experimenting on the Future of the Touchless Elevator

In the world in which we currently live, where keeping one’s distance is the norm, the thought of riding in an enclosed elevator car with strangers might be daunting. But consider this: Tall residential buildings have maintained operations throughout the pandemic, thanks largely to the availability of elevator service. While elevator rides might be limited by car occupancy or adapted in some way for touchless technology, they’ve been in constant use this entire time. Because, of course, they had to. Residents of tall buildings have had no choice but to adapt and ride, albeit with a bit more caution than before. So for people speculating and wondering how they’re going to return to work in their tall office buildings, they needn’t look much further than their residential neighbors for how to safely travel up and down.

In a previous article relating to elevator technology, I explored the implications of social distancing and reduced occupancy on the time it would take to load an office building and how technology like destination dispatch can help expedite the process. Similarly, technology that streamlines access control can also speed things up and reduce queuing in lobbies. Implementing policies like staggered shifts and timed entry work to keep employees safe and get them to their destinations faster. But one of the main concerns that occupants still have is physical contact with surfaces, so touchless elevator technology can really be a game changer—regardless of property type.

Otis Elevator Company, whose portfolio is over 50 percent residential, recently launched a pilot for their touchless elevator technology that includes voice control and gesturing. I spoke with Chris Bowler, Otis’s senior director of Global Service Marketing, about the pilot and Otis’s touchless solutions. “Think about how often you use voice to control devices. You have your phone, and you have voice-controlled cars now. So why not a voice-controlled elevator?” said Bowler. The technology works via a listening device that is mounted near the elevator call button and also within the elevator car itself. When a passenger approaches the elevator, they simply say, “Hey Otis, take me up,” or “Hey Otis, take me down.” Then, once in the car, it’s “Hey Otis, take me to floor five,” upon which floor five will illuminate so the passenger knows they’re on their way to the correct destination.

The pilot, which is being conducted at Foxwoods Resort Casino, also included Otis’s gesturing technology that uses computer vision to determine whether a person wants to go up or down through basic hand motions. The gesturing device is a small box, about the size of a smartphone, that gets mounted by the elevator and uses symbols to demonstrate how to swipe up or down, depending on which direction the passenger is going. Once in the car, the passenger can then use voice control to select their floor. 

Both the voice control and gesturing technologies were developed just in the last four to five months as a response to COVID-19. One of Otis’s innovation teams in China began working on touchless solutions immediately upon seeing the impact of the virus, and through global collaboration, the company has been able to share best practices and technologies. At Foxwoods, Bowler witnessed passengers adapting well to using the new technology by following guidance from clear signage posted in the elevator bank. Plans for expansion of the pilot include a major hospital, residential building, and office building in Hartford, Connecticut.   

Another touchless solution Otis offers is an app that comes in different variations based on customer needs. Essentially, the app enables the elevator to be operated through the passenger’s smartphone via bluetooth technology. When the smartphone is within range of the elevator, the app allows the passenger to select up or down. Then, upon entering the car, the interface changes to simulate the elevator’s floor buttons that can then be selected on the smartphone. Other variations of this app allow it to be integrated with building security systems, too. 

Some advanced properties have their own building apps that allow tenants to do things like book meeting rooms, order food through the cafeteria, adjust settings like lighting and temperature, and provide access control. “Now you can request the elevator through the app. And we do this using an API. And so we provide the API to the app developer for the customer’s building, they can then integrate that into their own app and provide that equal capability,” explained Bowler. Regardless of the property’s current capabilities or technology, touchless solutions can be customized and integrated to meet those needs.

Yet despite all of the current touchless technology and safety precautions, including limited occupancy and distancing, many people are still worried about being in enclosed spaces because of the role that air plays in the spread of the virus via infectious aerosols (or airborne particles). Throughout COVID-19, residential building occupants have had to manage using elevators simply wearing masks and maintaining proper distance, but as more research is conducted, we can learn more about the virus, how it spreads, and the effects of airflow patterns within these spaces to make the safest possible choices. 

To assist in this process, Otis has commissioned an independent study which will investigate the risk of airborne transmission in elevators. According to the press release, “the study will be led by Dr. Qingyan (Yan) Chen, the James G. Dwyer Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue, who is widely recognized for his research into the spread of infectious disease through indoor air systems—and how to prevent it.” Dr. Chen, whose previous studies have focused on indoor air quality in aircraft cabins and health building design, uses advanced 3D modeling as a part of his research techniques. In addition to assessing the risk of elevators, the research will also aim to “scientifically validate preferred methods of mitigating passenger risks associated with the virus,” said Chen.

It’s inevitable that there will be a certain amount of risk involved in almost any daily activity that requires a person to venture outside of their home. This is the new normal we live in. But a part of that new normal includes finding ways to adapt and touchless technology has been a huge component in that process. Regardless of property type and location, buildings will continue to be used more and more frequently as we move through various COVID-19 recovery phases and businesses begin to reopen or adjust to new capacities. Even residential buildings that have remained operational this entire time will need to adjust to new levels of occupancy and elevator usage as people return to their normal activities. This means that we might still be in the early days of innovation in vertical transportation. Once we have elevators that can understand your voice or read your gestures, it is only a matter of time before they also have their own voice and gestures. The restrictions around the pandemic will certainly not be the death of the elevator but it might be the thing that brings them to life.

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