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In Basel, Switzerland, two VINCI Energies brands – Axians and Actemium – put their heads together to quickly find innovative solutions enabling work to continue safely despite COVID-19.

Covering a surface area of around 100,000m2, the uptownBasel hub, located in Arlesheim in the suburbs of Basel, is the largest construction site in north-west Switzerland. Work on this high-profile project, which is set to become a competence centre for Industry 4.0, has continued despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unlike some other countries such as France, Switzerland did not suspend construction activities during the crisis. “However, its Federal Council imposed strict measures during the works, including maintaining a 2-metre distance, and these were backed up by multiple checks,” explains Nicolas Muller, manager of the Actemium Automation & Industrial IT business unit.

It was precisely to address the issue of worksite safety in a global health crisis that this VINCI Energies subsidiary, specialising in industrial process optimisation, was contacted by its sister company Axians.

At the beginning of April 2020, Axians, which is responsible for the ICT aspects of the Basel project, was commissioned by the project owner to find a solution that would ensure compliance with hygiene rules and safe working conditions.

Embedded system in helmets

Initial measures had been taken on site, including extending sanitary facilities, creating additional rest areas and installing more coffee and vending machines. But more needed to be done, since, when concentrating on their tasks, site staff often run the risk of inadvertently breaking the new rules, especially physical distancing ones.

Together with Axians, Actemium devised and designed, in just two days, a prototype tool aimed at better protecting site workers.

“Embedded in helmets, the Bluetooth-based system assesses the distance between two devices – in other words two people – and beeps or vibrates to alert the user when he or she is less than 2 metres apart from the other person,” explains Muller.

A simple and effective tool

uptownBasel likes the idea and agrees to develop it. The co-innovation group even decides to make use of it to communicate about its building project, which is strongly geared towards new technology and collaborative working. A video showcasing the new tool is produced by its teams and broadcast on Swiss television.

“Around 50 clients of VINCI Energies want to use the new tool on their own construction sites.”

“Sharing the video on the VINCI Energies internal Yammer network helped gather further momentum. We’ve since been contacted by around 50 clients who want to use the tool on their own construction sites,” points out Muller, who estimates the number of devices that could eventually be brought to market at 50,000.

Refined with the help of Alsatian start-up Insolem, an embedded system specialist which developed a circuit board for the purpose, the device is in the process of being mass produced. “We’ll be able to sell 800 by the end of May and 3,000 by mid-June, states Muller.

At the moment, a hundred or so units are being tested on the Basel site. “The first users were drywall installers who tend to work in pairs. It improves compliance with mask-wearing when they have jobs to perform in close proximity to each other,” states the Actemium Automation & Industrial IT business unit manager.

He insists on the fact that the new tool cannot under any circumstances “trace” people. “It’s purely a way of reminding them to follow the distancing rule, in line with other smart safety initiatives promoting simplicity and agility taken by the Group.”