Are thermal cameras our best defense against COVID-19?

Industry consultant assesses the benefits and shortcomings of using this technology during the current pandemic
 - 
Wednesday, April 1, 2020

YARMOUTH, Maine—Thermal cameras and devices are being used today during the coronavirus outbreak to help detect elevated temperatures in humans, providing a first line of defense in at least identifying those who are exhibiting signs of a fever. But, as we have discovered, the use of this technology is only part of the overall screening process, and there are challenges with using thermal cameras for this purpose, especially if someone is symptomless yet still contagious.

To get a closer look at this topic, Security Systems News spoke with industry consultant Pierre Bourgeix, president of ESICONVERGENT LLC.

SSN: Do thermal cameras provide the most effective way to detect if someone has the virus in the public domain?

BOURGEIX: As we deal with an unprecedented spread of coronavirus globally, governments as well as health agencies are attempting to define the best path forward to detect the virus in the public domain. The use of thermal cameras/sensors is part of this process. 

Unfortunately, this is a daunting task since there are few technologies that have proven to be 100 percent foolproof. The most well-known is the use of the thermal camera or thermal analytic to define the presence of heat at the surface of an object. The security industry and the military have used thermal cameras as far back as 1929 when a Hungarian physicist first defined the electronic thermal camera for anti-aircraft detection. The path from that early technology to the development of advanced thermal cameras didn’t become commercially popular until FLIR came to the market in 1978. 

With all this in mind, the thermal camera has gone through the most rigorous testing because of the importance of its use. There are many successful implementations of thermal human detection in law enforcement and the military. During SARS, the FLIR solution to detect a heat source based on skin temperature (adjusted to the specific number) was created and used somewhat successfully. However, the history of the thermal camera has never seen what is being unleashed onto the global arena like what his happening today. Within the last three months, a tidal wave of interest and requests are inundating companies that have been involved in the industry for decades such as FLIR, which is why it is critical to define the pros and cons of its use for thermal human temperature detection.
 
SSN: What are some issues or challenges with using thermal technology to detect the virus?

BOURGEIX: The first issue is the fact that the temperature of the individual, as health administrators have stated, is not a completely foolproof way to define if you have COVID-19. According to the CDC, “the virus has an incubation period up to 14 days and during that time the infected person may not carry a temperature.” In addition, “post Covid-19 cases indicate that there is a spread potential of more than a week after you have survived the virus and would not display a fever.”

This makes it one of the most elusive and dangerous viruses ever to affect planet earth. Okay, that’s the bad news, but here is some good news: The thermal camera/sensor technology — as part of social distancing — helps define potential candidates who are in the greatest danger to themselves and to others. I want to call this the “80 percent rule.” If we can detect 80 percent of the population that has a temperature, which is in acceptable range of being potentially infected, then I believe that is a victory. However, the thermal camera/sensor must be tied to a process, which allows for data and testing to be done immediately.

SSN: Can you talk more about what is needed to make that screening process complete then?

BOURGEIX: I always say, if your policy is detection without prevention then what have you truly accomplished? Technology must be part of the equation. It is also clear to me that the use of analytics, machine learning and medical data libraries attached to detection processes that help the healthcare or security professional using the thermal camera solution can become effective. The 80 percent rule makes it more plausible in its use as a healthcare technology.

SSN: What are some other challenges when using thermal camera technology during the pandemic?

BOURGEIX: In everything there are always going to be cons. The unfortunate reality is that the popularity of finding the easy button also leads to flawed technology entering the market that has not been tested. These cameras or analytical solutions are becoming a panacea-type reaction to the fear of doing nothing, which is one of the greatest issues — doing nothing is completely wrong and being paralyzed by the effect of perfection is the greatest harm in dealing with a pandemic.

The reality is that there will be products and companies that will reap fortunes from the suffering of others. The question truly is: Should we stick to technology that has evolved, like thermal camera/sensors, or chase technology that has been created in the rush to make money? The health industry is not a technology industry; its priority is to save people’s lives by administering the most promising and tested drugs, processes and procedures to help the human being survive. The role of manufacturers is to create technology that can help the healthcare industry do their job better and more efficiently to save lives.

Some have also stated that the use of thermal camera/sensors could create privacy issues. Well this is non sequitur since thermal cameras detect an image based on its heat source and can easily obscure any form of identifiable characteristic, which would define the identity. Yes, if you have a temperature you would pose a risk to the public and therefore you would have to be identified. But the question is why would you ask about privacy concerns if lives were at risk? Are we so tied to emotional reactions that our thinking skills have disappeared entirely? It is critical for our humanity to understand that privacy has its place, and I am a firm believer in it, but in times of crisis, we must understand its place and its importance.

Yes, the pros of using technology to help mitigate the potential spread of this virus do outweigh the cons.

As with 9/11, we will see a rush to use any technology to improve our odds for survival; it is inevitable that some will be ineffective and frankly fraudulent, but this is the risk you take when implementing technology that is unproven. While it may never reach the 100 percent acceptance tolerance that some would like, thermal technology from known entities is proven.

Sorry to say, but delayed perfection may not be something we can wait for.