The New Normal: Touch-Free Access Control

Nov. 2, 2020
The time is right for implementing smartphones into new and existing access control systems.

The demand for a touch-free access solution, also referred to as contactless access, certainly isn’t new. But it’s become almost a necessity since the emergence of COVID-19. In fact, for decades, the industry has made touch-free readers available, along with a growing number of inventive, contactless credentials that allow users to enter a building without making physical contact with a reader or keypad.

In this article, we’ll examine some of the options that electronic access control (EAC) users have available in terms of recent innovations as well as more-traditional means of contactless access. We’ll look particularly at electronic locks equipped with smartphone integration. We also will look at best practices for implementing smartphones as credentials in new and existing EAC systems.

Why Touch-Free Is So Appealing

The EAC market has gravitated to touch-free access solutions for some time. Up until recently, the motivation primarily has been convenience, which is a huge motivator for manufacturers and end users.

“When we install access, we almost always use contactless credentials,” says John Larkin, senior partner with Electronic Systems Consultants of Columbus, Ohio. “We do this because of convenience combined with greater security. On the one hand, our clients do not have to directly interface with the structure in any manner; and on the other, wireless access is usually more secure, because there are fewer attack points to consider.

“Today, however, the incentive is health-related.”

Early on during the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an opinion that COVID-19 could be spread by touching contaminated surfaces, such as counters, door knobs, locks, keypads and the like. This led the security industry to seek ways to minimize the necessity to touch a device when entering public places, businesses and other spaces.

The latest research indicates that COVID-19 is spread through person-to-person contact in close quarters, but a variety of studies have found that respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19, can spread through contaminated surfaces.

Until definitive answers to these health-related questions are determined, it’s best to err on the side of caution rather than convenience. So, security professionals continue to scramble to achieve entry methods that don’t require physical contact.

Smartphone Integration

Nevertheless, it’s the right time for EAC manufacturers to marry smartphones to their access control systems. “Almost everyone has a smartphone these days, so it makes perfect sense to use it as an access credential,” Larkin says.

Worldwide, about 3.5 billion people use a smartphone, which equates to 44.81 percent of the world’s population. There are about 272 million smartphone users in the United States, making U.S. smartphone penetration 79.1 percent, according to researcher Statista.

Unsurprisingly, security manufacturers have had smartphone credentials for some time now.

“ASSA ABLOY has been delivering solutions that support mobile access credentials for many years,” says Lisa Corte, director of product management, electronic access control at ASSA ABLOY. “Many ASSA ABLOY brands offer products that can read mobile phone-based credentials, in addition to other contactless cards.”

Connected Technologies released ScanPass powered by Connect ONE in March 2016, says Mike Simon, managing partner with Connected Technologies. “People like the convenience of smartphone access,” he adds. “It’s something they have with them and are unlikely to leave home without.”

Simon says Connected Technologies developed the ScanPass mobile credential so end users could use their smartphone for contactless, friction-free access control. No additional hardware or devices have to be installed at the customer site. Users simply point their smartphone at the barcode affixed at the door, and they gain access or are left out in the cold.

Integration Tech

Common smartphone wireless radio technologies include Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Wi-Fi and near field communication (NFC).

“We have Bluetooth and NFC apps that will unlock doors,” says Greg Penninger, regional sales manager at Rosslare Security. “We also have a full-blown app coming next year that will do management functions.”

According to Corte, ASSA ABLOY brands have several products that read mobile credentials, in addition to other contactless cards.

For example, IN Series locksets, available from Corbin Russwin and SARGENT, can communicate using Wi-Fi, Power over Ethernet or ASSA ABLOY’s Aperio protocol, which is a proprietary wireless method of communication. Corte adds that the SE LP10, Harmony and Access 700/800 locksets also can be used with contactless cards and mobile-credential support to integrate with wired access control systems.

Other products, such as the Axis 2N Bluetooth application, only has to be in Bluetooth range of a door to unlock it.

“Essentially, as a user approaches the intercom or access control unit, [the device] will sense the approved app, and the user simply touches the app [button] to confirm that they want the door opened,” says Craig Szmania, business development manager, intercom, with Axis Communications. “This will cause the intercom [or access system] to trigger the lock, opening the door.”

ASSA ABLOY’s Medeco Intelligent Key system uses a different approach to smartphone inclusion.

“The keys for these systems are available with Bluetooth technology, which allows the keyholder to receive updates via their smartphone or other device using a mobile app,” says Ashok Acharya, Medeco’s CLIQ product manager.

This is a benefit, because “in these times of reducing face-to-face contact, it allows users to receive updates to access rights and schedules via their smartphone, without the need to return the key to a central location administrator for this programming,” he adds. “It also benefits the system administrator, because security can be managed via web-based software from wherever they are located, whether from their home office or other remote location.”

In this case, a user’s smartphone programs a special Bluetooth key that, in turn, is used to access an electronic lock on a door. This takes advantage of the Grade 1 listing of a mechanical lock combined with cylinders and keys equipped with high-tech electronics.

HID also has a touch-free smartphone option. According to Steve Carney, vice president of product marketing, physical access control solutions with HID Global, Ultra-Wideband (UWB) is an emerging technology that HID expects will become ubiquitous on mobile devices in a few years.

“UWB technology provides the unique ability to deliver unprecedented accuracy and security when measuring the distance or determining the relative position of a target,” he says. HID doesn’t expect UWB to replace NFC or Bluetooth. Instead, UWB will work alongside Bluetooth to improve reliability, Carney says.

Smartphone access is here to stay, and the industry won’t be the same, even after the pandemic has abated and life returns to some resemblance of normal. But manufacturers already were headed in this direction anyway. So, for some, the jump has come sooner than expected. The advancement has been well-received and accepted by most if not all end users, particularly those who might be more medically susceptible to COVID-19 than most.

Allan B. Colombo is a longtime trade journalist and professional in the security and life-safety markets. Contact him at [email protected], 330-956-9003 or