Millions of people are waiting out the pandemic at home but many others still have to go to work in industries like food preparation, shipping, and manufacturing, particularly medical equipment. FLIR, which makes thermal cameras for military intelligence collection and targeting, says they’ve seen an “exponential” increase in sales to industrial customers who want to scan employees for fever — a key symptom of COVID-19.
“Whether it’s a medical organization that wants to have this screening before you enter a clinic or a hospital, whether it’s other industries that are critical to manage the distribution of goods and such, they have to maintain a large workforce, etc. etc.,” they’re ordering thermal cameras like never before, FLIR CEO James Cannon said.
Examples: Emirates Airlines is now screening all passengers headed to the United States. The Wynn Resorts casino chain, currently closed by the outbreak, has nevertheless put in a large order for the cameras. A grocery store chain in Atlanta is scanning customers and if the shopper presents a temperature above 100.4, the market will “discretely inform” them and find an alternative way to shop for them, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports.
Beyond its military sales, which include cameras embedded in tiny bug drones, FLIR also sells thermal imaging equipment to the Department of Homeland Security for watching U.S. borders.
Thermal cameras are useful for detecting people who are wearing camouflage. But it’s not clear how helpful they are as public-health tools.
“Just last week, eight passengers who later tested positive for COVID-19 arrived in Shanghai from Italy and passed the airport screeners unnoticed, for example. And even if screeners do find the occasional case, it has almost no impact on the course of an outbreak,” notes a March 6 story in Science.
Studies suggest that COVID-19 can spread before the appearance of symptoms, like cough and fever. But a high fever is associated with the illness.
Cannon was careful to say that the cameras aren’t scanning directly for the virus, but said they do accurately read temperature within .01 degree Celsius.
In the midst of the 2002 SARS epidemic, FLIR began to sell thermal cameras to South Korea and other Asian countries to screen passengers at airports. The software to detect fever has advanced considerably since then; the physical hardware is also much smaller.
Thermal cameras for detecting whether a person is running a fever need to be close to the eye to work, either embedded in a kiosk that a person looks into or in a handheld scanner in order to take a precise sample of a person’s face, very close to the eye. The scanner can then sound an alarm when it encounters an elevated level. Even though a slightly increased temperature does not necessarily mean that a person has COVID-19 and, indeed, not having a temperature is not an indication that someone does not have the illness, it does provide a datapoint that could help companies screen employees for the virus.
“You can imagine how customers are going to want to use this data now,” Cannon said. “They’re going to want to track and categorize, follow up” to see how the data from the cameras corresponded to the actual case.
The FLIR CEO said increased orders were coming from European governments, but not yet the U.S. government.
He says that FLIR is able to keep on top of the new orders for now but manufacturing “capacity is almost completely consumed.” There’s also a danger in standing up new factories. After the SARS epidemic petered out in 2002, many customers cancelled their orders.