How infrared cameras could stem the spread of COVID-19

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

by Caroline Bottger

Temperature check in aisle five: Having a camera take your temperature as you shop might soon be a reality for some Americans as the coronavirus continues to spread. In a bid to control infections and reopen businesses, some startups and tech companies are exploring the use of infrared cameras and thermal imaging to take a snapshot of a person’s temperature.

Businesses are on board. A mall in Nebraska, a state which has seen comparatively fewer coronavirus cases, hopes to be a blueprint for the rest of the country. Alongside rules around reduced customer numbers and heightened sanitation rules, the mall is proposing that salespeople take the temperature of each person who wishes to enter a store. Amazon is using thermal cameras to scan workers in some of its fulfillment centers. The cameras have been deployed as a faster, contactless alternative to forehead thermometers. Anyone detected with a temperature over 100℉ is sent home.

Thermal camera technology became widespread in airports around Asia after the 2003 SARS outbreak, and interest is climbing as temperature checks become the standard for tracking coronavirus. Thermal imaging companies like FLIR Systems, Thermoteknix Systems, and Opgal Optronics Industries are reporting record first-quarter sales in 2020. NBC News also identified 10 companies from the U.S., China and Europe that are currently marketing infrared imaging technology to police, hospitals, schools and private businesses.

Forehead temperature technology has gotten us this far, but the continuing lockdown means that safer measures are needed. “You have to point them [forehead thermometers] to people’s foreheads…you need to be really close, it’s not wearable and you’re not practicing social distancing to use those,” said Lian Guan, U.S. director of China-based wearables company Rokid. Rokid is partnering with U.S. hospitals and local municipalities to get its infrared glasses into the hands of first responders. Rokid claims that its T1 thermal glasses can detect the temperatures of 200 people within two minutes, from about 10 feet away. And that’s not all: The company is also offering a connected software solution that includes facial recognition and data management capabilities. But one should be skeptical: Eran Bluestein from Opgal said that any thermal imaging cameras boasting long-rage screening ability wouldn’t meet an international standard for accuracy — but could be useful for businesses that only want a few customers in their store at once.

But is an infrared camera the best way to take a temperature? According to Rhett Allain in WIRED, thermal cameras are better suited to detecting external temperature of the skin, not the body’s internal temperature. Furthermore, thermal imaging cameras still need to verify with a medical-grade thermometer after alerting the system to a high temperature. More importantly, some experts point out that even though fever is a symptom of coronavirus, it can take several days for the fever to manifest, if at all. “It’s a screen, not a diagnostic test,” countered Allain. But with testing lagging and a vaccine nowhere in sight, screening could be the best option.

Caroline Bottger is a freelance writer who writes on issues of technology, privacy, and security. 
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