Virtual inspections gain traction

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Initially a way to keep county officials and building developers safe during the pandemic, virtual inspections are saving time and money for local government and businesses.

Delaware’s New Castle County began performing virtual business inspections in 2016 as a time-saving measure for re-inspections. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the practice has become an important way to protect inspectors and customers.

“Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen our virtual numbers grow significantly, with the protection of staff and our customers becoming the top priority,” David Holston, licensing manager at the county’s Department of Land Use, wrote in an email to GCN. “While staff are protected with personal protective equipment in the field, we strongly encourage the use of virtual inspections to limit any possible exposure.”

About seven months ago, the department established a policy that required inspections of occupied spaces to be performed virtually. To conduct them, the county uses FaceTime and Microsoft Teams, depending on the customer’s preference. Since mid-March, the county has completed nearly 1,800 virtual inspections -- about 50 to 60 each week, Holston said.

“We’ve found that virtual inspections not only benefit New Castle County, but also our customers” he said. “They greatly appreciate the ability to schedule a specific inspection time, which saves them from waiting onsite for an inspector to arrive.” Aside from health and safety aspects, the biggest benefits the county has seen are time and fuel savings, he added.

The approach has so far seen few downsides, although sometimes customers have difficulty with the technology or lack a quality internet connection for the video feed to display properly, Holston said. An in-person inspection is still the best option for complex reviews, too, but “the pandemic has provided us the opportunity to truly embrace this new approach to inspections,” he said. 

At the state level, Delaware contracted with Help Lightning, a company that provides an augmented reality video support solution for virtual inspections. Its cloud-based software-as-a-service solution works on any mobile device or smartphone and incorporates what CEO Gary York calls merged reality -- taking two real-time views from two devices and merging them together into one interactive environment.

The solution creates virtual interactivity by allowing a remote expert to interact with a video feed from an onsite inspector. The remote expert can see what the inspector is showing through the camera, mobile device, tablet or smart glasses.  The augmented reality capabilities allow remote experts to virtually reach out to “touch” areas they want inspectors to examine. Experts can write on the screen, freeze images, use hand gestures, share pictures and add real objects into the merged reality environment.

To use it, inspectors download an Apple iOS, Android or web app to their computers or mobile devices and send a link via SMS text message to the business owner. That person clicks the link to initiate the video call. The inspector can take snapshots of the video call as evidence that they completed the inspection.

The technology can be integrated into existing customer relationship management systems and field services processes.

“The power is you can use it on the devices you already have in your pocket,” York said.

Help Lightning has seen a more than 500% growth in customers in the past several months, largely driven by the pandemic. Beyond business inspections, the technology is being used in the education and health sectors. For instance, medical device companies that provide lab or testing equipment to health departments are using merged reality to train department employees on how to set up and use the equipment.

But York said the technology has staying power beyond the crisis. “Some of these new use cases are sticky,” York said. “As they start doing business a new way, what they realize is that oftentimes, that is a better approach.”

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