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Supporting Vulnerable People with Reliable Connectivity

By on

In 2018, I spoke at a TEDx event, sharing my vision of how emerging space technologies hold the power to rebuild fractured community networks, to bring us together, and to support the most vulnerable groups of people in our society.

Since then, much has changed. Technology has advanced further in a way that enables us to be more connected, but yet research shows that more than twenty five million adults in England report feeling occasionally, sometimes or often lonely.

When we look at the most vulnerable groups in society, the data paints an equally concerning picture, with 43% of those in poor health or living with a long-term disability or illness reporting that they are often or always lonely.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also had a huge impact with remoteness now more prevalent in our communities due to lockdowns. However, the mass adoption of technologies such as video conferencing services has allowed us to connect with friends and relatives, whether they are down the road or the other side of the world.

Improving connectivity is key to supporting vulnerable people and combatting loneliness, and a system that is designed to be accessible for all promotes a better society for everyone. In building collaborations between researchers, service providers, solution developers and end users we have the best chance of creating fit for purpose, affordable applications.

How Technology Can Help

Since 2018, the technology we have available has advanced significantly, with personal smart devices, wearable tech, and access to Wi-Fi now commonplace. This has given us access to each other and huge amounts of information wherever we are. Some examples of technologies that could be used to support vulnerable people in our society include:

  • Wearable Technology – Wearable tech such as smartwatches and fitness trackers have become more accessible, allowing users to track their wellbeing through measurement of their heart rates, sleeping patterns and even blood oxygen levels. Primarily developed for fitness, this capability can be used for monitoring babies in cots, protecting lone workers, or allowing healthcare workers and family members to monitor the condition of a loved one.
  • Enhanced Connectivity – With 5G and satellite networks becoming more widely available we hope to see a future where anyone can use apps, websites, and advanced technology at any time without needing to worry about poor signal. This kind of connection can also support with remote GP appoinments and health checks, and faster and more effective emergency response.
  • Virtual Assistants – Virtual assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Nest have become increasingly affordable, offering voice-activated access to information, particularly supportive to those who struggle with technology or cannot use other smart devices due to a disability or illness. The addition of AI allows the devices to learn about the people they interact with, and could allow friends or relatives to check or be notified of changes such as lack of interaction.
  • Earth Observation – Earth observation satellites have been used for some time for imagery and pollutant monitoring, but improvements in global air quality as a result of lockdown have made it front-page news. Making this data accessible to those suffering from respiratory diseases could improve their quality of life and independence, and increasing self-management will reduce strain on our healthcare system.
  • Augmented Reality – Augmented reality (AR) is being applied to many areas of our lives, from adding funny hats to our Zoom calls to showing what a paint colour will look like on our walls. Using AR to bring a human element to video calls will feel more natural and allow for better connections with medical professionals, family and co-workers. The reduction in travel as a result could also have environmental benefits.

More information on how satellite technology is supporting the health and wellbeing sector, including supporting long-term conditions and remote healthcare, please read our latest news and blogs on this topic.

Benefits to Vulnerable People

The development and adoption of ubiquitous connectivity – the concept of having continuous signal without interruption – will benefit society in many ways. Whether elderly, living with a physical or mental illness or otherwise vulnerable to loneliness, technology can be tailored to make our lives easier; and many of these technologies rely on good connectivity to work.

These capabilities empower vulnerable people to make informed decisions, live more independently and promote a more integrated way of life; whether that is checking live bus times, viewing the weather forecast or connecting with family members and healthcare professionals over video chat. The need for a strong and continuous connection is not just for convenience. Vulnerable people, more than anyone, need to know that the services they are using will always be there no matter what.

The ability to use technology and data to make decisions could also decrease pressure on healthcare facilities by supporting self-management, and have environmental benefits by reducing travel or increasing confidence in using public transport.

In addressing the causes and potential solutions for combatting loneliness, we must also consider the wider effect that it can have on people. We know that certain groups of people are more susceptible to loneliness but also that loneliness can be a huge contributer to ongoing health concerns such as early mortality, heart disease and obesity. Therefore if we can work towards reducing the number of people suffering from loneliness we can hope to also reduce associated illnesses it can cause.

Challenges Faced

Supporting the most vulnerable in our societies has become top of the agenda for policymakers and voters. But there are still challenges we must overcome:

  • Connectivity – According to Ofcom, 91% of the country can get reliable 4G from at least one operator. To enable truly ubiquitous connectivity, the entire population should be able to access an uninterrupted connection, without needing to worry about their location or what operator they are with.
  • Collaboration – Whilst technology to make people’s lives easier is available, fragmentation of services and a lack of collaboration between developers mean that apps and technology are often designed for a sole function without the bigger picture in mind. We must also make sure to collaborate with the users so that new devices or solutions created fit exactly what they need not what we think they need.
  • Technological illiteracy – Some groups of vulnerable people, particularly the elderly, may not have the skills required to make the most of technology or may resist it entirely. Ensuring technology and education is accessible to all is paramount to realise the true benefits of ubiquitous connectivity.

More Information

Vulnerability and loneliness can happen to anybody, and space technologies have the capabilities to drive innovations that can help. The onus is on all of us, including Government, local authorities, healthcare providers and communities to make these solutions happen.

If your organisation is looking to collaborate using space technology to solve real human problems and create a better society for everyone, get in touch with us on 01235 428 199 or email info@sa.catapult.org.uk.  


Lucy Edge
Chief Operating Officer
+44 (0)1235 567999
As Chief Operating Officer of the Satellite Applications Catapult Lucy is responsible for supporting enterprises across the UK in understanding and exploiting the potential of space and satellites to create opportunities and transform businesses.

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