NEWS | Nov. 10, 2020

Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5 Trials New Technology to Support COVID Tracing Efforts

By Petty Officer 1st Class Stephane Belcher Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5

Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 5 started field-testing a developing technology with Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) to streamline COVID-19 contact tracing efforts onboard Naval Base Ventura County, Port Hueneme, California, Nov. 2.

Seabees volunteered to wear a Bluetooth device during working hours or when there was a reasonable expectation for contact with someone else who was wearing the device. The tracker identified when they were within six feet of another device for a designated amount of time.

“This is invaluable to us, for [NMCB-5] to quickly take this on,” said Lt. Cmdr. Todd Coursey, with NAVSEA and the project officer for the COVID-19 proximity tracker. “If people don’t adopt the technology and they don’t wear them, then it doesn’t work, and it’s just not effective.”

Each wristband has a unique identification to enable COVID-19 tracing methods and is viewable on an application dashboard, notifying wearers if they were potentially exposed to, or in close contact with, someone who tested positive for COVID-19. It does not have GPS capabilities and will only distinguish if it has come close to another device for a certain time, ensuring privacy.

“These proximity trackers are going to be used as a supplemental tool, along with our normal contact tracing protocol of calling patients who are positive and getting a good contact log of that person,” said Lt. Jeffrey Moy, NMCB-5’s medical officer. “These contact tracing devices can augment that because a lot of people will not know who they were in a meeting room with, who they were passing, or who they were talking to.”

Other than a small pilot at the Naval Academy, NMCB-5 is the first command to test the automated proximity trackers. NAVSEA is looking to the Seabees to give feedback on implementing this new technology to eventually encompass a larger scale, like aboard naval ships.

“I think the more important part of doing this is getting the actual folks that are going to be wearing these to give feedback,” said Coursey. “This pilot is going to be more efficient because we will get a better understanding of the technology, and it is a little bit more sequenced and more focused.”

There are obstacles to overcome before launching the trackers in a shipboard environment, such as the radio frequencies in the proximity trackers, which can have a lot of interference on a ship. The first step for NAVSEA is to get a shore-based test and understand how the trackers work in a less complex environment.

“Once we can verify the technology—you know, if device one and device two activate within 6 feet of each other—we can start looking at ships and try to adapt to the more complex environment.”

NMCB-5 is homeported in Port Hueneme, California. During the homeport phase, the Seabees train on high-quality construction, expeditionary logistics, and combat operations to support U.S. and partner nations and deter aggression.