We all know how WhatsApp works.  Now we have ‘WhatsApp for machines’, where machines are brought into the conversation with humans. And the good news is, it’s homegrown.

In a real-world example of leveraging the power of the ‘Internet of Things’, the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI), working together with facility management company Property Services Group (PSG), has developed an interactive smartphone app that promises to be a gamechanger for automated building management. A patent has recently been lodged for the algorithm that underpins the new system.

The app, a single interface mobile messaging system, is a kind of master system which creates an intelligent interface between a building’s many monitoring systems and equipment, the people working in the facility, and those responsible for safety and compliance. The app includes capacity for real-time video monitoring, photographs, equipment alarms and a chat function.

AHRI’s Durban facilities include 682m2 of Biosafety Level 3 (BSL3) laboratories (biocontainment labs that allow scientists to safely work with dangerous airborne diseases such as tuberculosis), a specialised heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, 48 bio-safety cabinets, as well as tissue culture processing rooms, incubators, freezers, a liquid nitrogen plant and a bio-repository. The building is also fitted with advanced camera monitoring and access control systems, which are required for control and compliance purposes.

All labs and equipment are monitored continuously and like many organisations using complex, high tech scientific equipment to do research, AHRI relies on elaborate building automation and messaging systems to do this monitoring. Equipment supplied by different vendors typically comes with messaging systems that are proprietary, have different levels of sophistication and are difficult to integrate with other building systems. Maintaining these systems is problematic as it entails keeping separate user databases and training people in multiple systems.

The single interface messaging system that AHRI has developed addresses these issues, taking into account multiple systems and allowing for ‘intelligent’ alarms to be generated. For example, should a bio-repository technician be overcome by nitrogen gas while working, the app will alert another user to the situation via a system of integrated access control and motion detector cameras.

“Thanks to the visionary support of AHRI management, we have been able to develop a very useful app that increases messaging efficiency, and therefore reduces the overall risks associated with working in a high containment facility,” says Mark Grant, CEO of Property Services Group. “At a biosafety conference in October 2016 in Phoenix Arizona (USA), I presented a paper on behalf of AHRI, where the app was revealed to the scientific community for the first time. One of the comments from a conference attendee, who represents a 100 000 m2 animal BSL3 facility in Canada, was that with an app like that on everyone’s phone, he could eliminate a room full of people who watch screens 24/7. Talk about efficiency.”

“In the corporate world the principal driver is profit, in our case it is science. I want to ensure that our institution provides our scientists with a safe and enabling environment to realise great scientific advances,” says AHRI COO Costas Criticos. “Being in a resource poor setting often results in limited access to technological support. Rather than paralysing us it has led us to develop our own technology. I am extremely proud that this invention has put AHRI on the map as an international leader in facilities management technology”