Image credit: FLIR Systems
As companies plan to open up their businesses and essential businesses seek to protect their employees, the demand for thermal cameras is heating up. Companies want to identify feverish employees and send them home to prevent a potential outbreak of COVID-19 in their workplaces.
Several companies are using no-contact thermal scanners, including the Home Depot, McDonald’s, and Walmart. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City has a “Temperature Brigade” that tests thousands of frontline transit workers every day in 22 stations across the city. Amazon, Facebook, and FedEx are reportedly using thermal imaging as well.
The desire to monitor workers is boosting market demand. The thermal imaging market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 6 percent to reach $5.16 billion by 2026, but that doesn’t fully factor in the increase in immediate demand arising from the current pandemic.
Contactless Temp Checks
To meet the increased demand, FLIR Systems, based in Arlington, Va., recently introduced two new thermal camera lines and will give priority access to businesses responding to COVID-19 concerns. The FLIR A400/A700 Thermal Smart Sensor and Thermal Image Streaming fixed camera solutions provide non-contact temperature monitoring from a fixed point. Both solutions offer multi-image streaming, edge computing capabilities, and Wi-Fi connectivity.
The Thermal Smart Sensor solution is designed to measure elevated skin temperatures. It incorporates multiple measurement tools and alarms and performs data analytics at the camera level. The Image Streaming configuration is designed to monitor industrial processes, providing multi-streaming capabilities, multiple field-of-view options, motorized focus control, and optional compressed radiometric streaming over Wi-Fi.
Users select the camera body based on the required resolution and add lenses and other features as desired. FLIR also manufactures other thermal imaging cameras and has FDA approval. In addition, FLIR is beta testing a software solution to expedite and improve accuracy of temperature screening.
Thermal Camera Limitations
A thermal camera captures the radiated infrared energy from a solid object, like a person, and converts it to a temperature reading and then a corresponding color. Each pixel represents a temperature reading, so the more pixels, the more accurate the reading. Accuracy depends on several factors, including the amount of heat an object emits, the number of pixels used, detector and system noise, and temperature drift, according to Markus Tarin, president and CEO of MoviTHERM, an engineering and integration firm that specializes in thermal systems. The accuracy of most thermal cameras is +/-3.6* Fahrenheit (+/-2* Celsius)—a margin of error that is enough to send a healthy person home.
When a person has an infection, the body’s core temperature increases, which can be determined with a thermal camera. In medical environments, for example, thermal readings can help diagnose breast cancer, diabetes, and other diseases.
The best place to measure body temperature is the inner tear duct. However, thermal cameras don’t work if a person is wearing glasses; the thermal camera can’t see through the glass, which hides the tear duct from its view. In screening processes, users are typically asked to remove glasses for this reason.
Thermal cameras have limited use in crowd environments, too. Detecting the temperature requires using high-resolution imaging across a person’s face, so pointing a camera into a crowd—like in an airport or mass transit system—is not a highly effective way to determine who might have a fever, according to Tarin.
Privacy: The Hot Button Issue
Thermal cameras provide a contactless way of checking people for fevers, but they have limits. Thermal cameras don’t diagnose viruses or other medical conditions, only an elevated body temperature. That could be the result of something innocuous: exercise, stress, pregnancy, or even being in a hot room.
In addition, civil liberty advocates point out that temperature screenings can lead to biases in the workplace. Employers have been federally prohibited from requiring workers to take medical exams, but recently the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission changed those rules. Now, employers can take the temperatures of its workers as often as they want, and they are even permitted to withdraw a job offer if a new hire tests positive for COVID-19.
Thermal screenings also don’t account for asymptomatic carriers of the virus, who could easily pass undetected and still infect coworkers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that as many as 25 percent of infected people could be asymptomatic.
Temperature-scanning systems are expected to become part of the “new normal” as the country eases up on lockdown restrictions. Public health officials predict we will see them alongside metal detectors at airports, office buildings, sports arenas, and even schools. Their acceptance proves people are willing to make concessions for safety, even if they grumble about it while standing in airport security lines. Right now, as we struggle to control the COVID-19 outbreak, thermal cameras are a solid tool in the public safety arsenal.