Julian Hall

Freelance journalist and copywriter, Textual Healing

September 21, 2020

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Can thermal imaging take the heat out of the coronavirus crisis?

Julian Hall takes a look at recent news stories highlighting the use of thermal imaging technology in detecting potential cases of coronavirus, and explores the potential benefits and pitfalls of such a screening method.

ThermalImaging-COronavirus-20The outbreak of the COVID-19 virus has presented a huge challenge to national resources and a race to adapt existing technologies and innovate and deploy newer ones. The use of thermal imaging has been in particular focus, with sales of thermal/infrared imaging cameras increasing dramatically.

Drones equipped with thermal cameras were used in Wuhan, China, the original epicentre of the crisis, to monitor movement. Now, a number of portable thermal imaging devices are currently being highlighted for their potential to protect key workers. Each has slightly different capabilities and usage models, but all ultimately aim to measure body temperature and flag possible victims of the virus by using the consequent reading.

As reported in The Telegraph, US firm Flir, a specialist in thermal imaging technology, has registered a staggering 700% increase in demand for its infrared cameras. The company claims that its cameras can “detect changes in skin temperature as slight as 0.01 degrees Celsius.”

Bytronic Automation has also recently launched a new automated system which uses “thermal cameras for accurate, non-contact skin temperature measurement, looking for anomalies that may indicate a fever and underlying infection”. Though Stewart Jackson, Technical Sales Manager at the company, does highlight that to get an accuracy of 0.3 degrees centigrade, users need to use a ‘black body’ – a “highly accurate temperature emitter that must be visible to the camera… you also need to see the area around the tear ducts”.

The business also explains that while useful in detecting elevated body temperatures, it wouldn’t specifically detect coronavirus – just symptoms, while this kind of technology wouldn’t be accurate when separating between groups of people.

Meanwhile, Texas firm Athena Security has launched a ‘fever detection system’ that has, according to NBC News, received 1,000 orders in two weeks. The system connects directly to an existing security camera system for real-time results.


Read more on temperature screening

Return to work: could elevated temperature screening be part of the ‘new normal’?

Things to consider when using thermal imaging for temperature screening


In the UK, surveillance firm Digital Barriers has just announced a ‘real-time remote’ fever scanning solution utilising the firm’s EdgeVisLive technology. A combination of a thermal and HD optical camera, the scanner claims to be able to work in areas with “poor bandwith and network connectivity” and, crucially, to function without the need for “close human contact”. Like many other devices of this type, the camera sounds an alarm when a certain temperature – deemed to be dangerous – is reached.

ThermalImaging-Coronavirus-DigitalBarriers-20

Among the many other companies and startups making devices is British smartphone firm Bullitt, who produces a phone with a thermal imaging camera. Product Marketing Director, Tim Shepherd, said: “It is not pinpoint accuracy, but it can detect anomalies. You can set temperatures within a certain range and measure skin temperature.”

Smartphone detectors further widen the catchment for thermal imaging products. Meanwhile, that market has no shortage of potential clients, including government agencies, schools, hospitals, clinics, police stations, warehouses, distributions centres and private businesses. We recently received news of the technology being used in Australian care homes – one of the most affected sectors from COVID-19. Essence Group has integrated its SmartCare monitoring technology with thermal cameras to detect virus symptoms to add a “critical element of safety in the care home environment”.

Rafi Zauer, Head of Marketing at Essence Group, says: “One of the key lessons that we are learning from the coronavirus pandemic is a need to reduce the spread of the virus by attempting to eliminate the need for person to person physical contact when providing care and safety to patients in their homes and also in care facilities. Care homes have found it difficult to implement these practices. The technology that we are installing in Australia allows us to do this by decreasing the need for this physical contact, whilst simultaneously providing a robust means of monitoring residents for signs of symptoms.

It’s not just manufacturers in the security sphere, either, who are working on such devices. Telecoms provider, Vodafone UK, has also recently launched a Heat Detection Camera in the UK, powered by its IoT connectivity. According to the business, each camera can check the temperature of “100 people per minute”, and, as is the standard for this technology, screens body temperatures accurate to within +/- 0.3 degrees Celsius.

Are thermal cameras reliable for fever detection?

However, the efficacy and wisdom of the thermal imaging solution comes with some significant caveats, particularly when it is considered that not everyone may develop a fever, or have mild symptoms that wouldn’t show any anomalies. And, as Bytronic explains above, it can be much more difficult to accurately detect anomalies in groups of people. 

Flir President, Frank Pennisi, is careful to emphasise – in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) experts – that while thermal imaging/infrared cameras could be helpful for screening, they are not sufficient for an actual diagnosis. For one thing, thermal imaging only measures skin temperature and not internal temperature. In addition, COVID-19 has a relatively long incubation period, and not all sufferers will experience a fever. Hikvision has also highlighted these points, and has recently produced a guide of what to consider when implementing thermal imaging solutions to detect temperatures. 

Indeed, the WHO states on its guidance for detection when travelling: “Temperature screening alone may not be very effective as it may miss travellers incubating the disease or travellers concealing fever during travel, or it may yield false positive (fever of a different cause).” It adds that temperature screening should be combined with health messages, a primary questionnaire and data collection and analysis, it the method was to be implemented.

Jamie Allam, CEO of Amthal Fire & Security, UK-based specialists in advanced electronic fire and security solutions, reinforces the variables in play: “It’s essential to identify that cameras will not scan directly for the virus,” he says. “Indeed a slightly increased temperature does not necessarily mean that a person has COVID-19 and, by the same sentiment, not having a temperature is not an indication that someone does not have the illness.”

One of the behavioural and psychological considerations is that use of any ‘fever detecting’ cameras could instill a false sense of security, perhaps encouraging a move to return to normality before it is due.

Another issue is the ‘hangover’ for privacy concerns. Jay Stanley, a Senior Policy Analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, told NBC: “We don’t want to see the world after COVID-19 where we end up with measures that last beyond this crisis and companies feel they have the free hand to go around taking people’s temperature all the time.”

However, thermal imaging in a post-COVID outbreak world could have a role to play in battling a “second wave” suggests some. Sounding a pragmatic note, Jamie Allam highlights that thermal camera technology “that is efficient, visible and can operate in real time” may provide “a data point that could help screen for the virus for a call to be made, if required.”

MHRA response to thermal screening

As the pandemic has progressed and more businesses have been highlighting their thermal solutions, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency’s response has been one of caution. In a press release published in July, the UK Government’s agency warned businesses and users not to rely on temperature screening products for the detection of coronavirus, as some of the claims made “are not a reliable way to detect if people have the virus”.

Graeme Tunbridge, MHRA Director of Devices, said: “Many thermal cameras and temperature screening products were originally designed for non-medical purposes, such as for building or site security. Businesses and organisations need to know that using these products for temperature screening could put people’s health at risk. These products should only be used in line with the manufacturer’s original intended use, and not to screen people for COVID-19 symptoms. They do not perform to the level required to accurately support a medical diagnosis.

“We are reminding anyone selling these products not to make claims which directly relate to COVID-19 diagnosis. If they fail to comply, we will take formal enforcement action.”

Aiming to find out a little more, IFSEC Global put some further questions to the Agency, as detailed below.

IFSEC Global: Regarding your press release of 3 July 2020, what prompted you to intervene in this way? Can you give an example of the claims being made on the part of thermal camera suppliers?

MHRA: We became aware of products being marketed for “temperature screening” where it was evident that a product which was intended for completely non-medical purposes (e.g. temperature checks during industrial processes) had been repurposed by the supplier for “temperature screening” since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We reviewed these products and others which are supplied with claims that they can detect fever or otherwise identify/screen for individuals with a raised body temperature in the context of COVID-19. We consider such claims as a medical intended purpose for the products. These claims would therefore bring the products within the scope of the Medical Device Directive 93/42/EEC (the MDD). If products fall within scope of the MDD on the basis of such claims but have not been CE marked in accordance with this Directive, or do not or cannot meet the requirements of the legislation, they would be non compliant and should not be placed on the UK market.

IFSEC Global: Is the MHRA against all use of thermal cameras to screen people’s temperatures, even if this is done in conjunction with other measures under government advice on safe working during COVID-19?

MHRA: As mentioned in the press release, we warned against “relying” on temperature screening to diagnose COVID-19. Accurate measurement of an individual’s temperature, using a legitimate medical device which is intended and CE marked for this purpose, is recognised as a diagnostic aid when used in conjunction with other methods and in consideration of the individual’s presentation and medical history.

Temperature measurement as a diagnostic test for COVID-19 is prone to significant numbers of false positive and false negative results. Asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic individuals in particular will not be detected by temperature checks alone, nor will the estimated 20% or higher of infected individuals who develop other symptoms without a fever. In addition, the use of antipyretic drugs such as paracetamol may temporarily reduce fever such that body temperature could appear normal on a temperature screen.

As such, using temperature screening as the main or only diagnostic test to determine whether people are “safe” to enter and mix with others in close quarters, particularly where there is no validation of the result by a healthcare professional or laboratory testing, creates the potential for both false reassurance regarding infected individuals receiving a false negative result, and unnecessary worry and disruption for those receiving a false positive result. This is particularly important where overconfidence in the relevance of the result may lead to behaviours that increase the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Key considerations for elevated temperature screening

Additional advice for companies using a thermal imaging system to measure elevated body or skin surface temperature includes:

  • Using thermal cameras that are designed specifically to detect elevated body temperature – and knowing that price points range according to accuracy, speed of detection, and additional analytics features. Users must also factor in the number of people coming through the access control point set up to run thermal scanners. Busier access points may need a crowd detection capability, for example.
  • Thermal cameras are designed to give an indication of elevated temperature, and are not a method of medical diagnosis or to be relied upon for fever screening
  • Provide clear communication to employees or visitors to a building that their temperatures will be checked, and allow an open method of feedback if any concerns regarding the use of a fever screening solution. Consent forms may need to be considered.
  • There has been a significant rise in products being manufactured and promoted as providing thermography solutions to detect elevated body temperatures. Be careful when specifying products that they are certified in some way.
  • Do not solely rely on a temperature screening solution to increase safety measures in a workplace or building. Consider touchless entry systems, or making more space available for employees to work in, for instance.
  • Who will monitor the screening? Often this will come down the security team. Will they need any specific training requirements, such as additional conflict management expertise?

Additional reference points

This article was originally published in April 2020 – it has since been updated by IFSEC Global as further information has become available. 

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[…] in drone technology have shown that indicators can be measured to detect the virus through thermal imaging cameras, such as, body temperature which aims to track the spread of the virus. However, measurements […]

Johnathan Apperlay
Johnathan Apperlay
July 21, 2020 8:16 pm

Decent article. A lot is left up for debate when we don’t understand the topic at hand entirely though. Yes, while a thermal imaging camera may prove reliable at detecting the presence of overheating in people, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have the virus and subjugating someone based on their overall temperature isn’t right either.

James Moore
Admin
July 23, 2020 10:26 am

Thanks for your comments Johnathan, glad you enjoyed the article. I’m by no means an expert on the subject, but your point is an important one. I think the best use of thermal imaging devices at this time is as one part of an overall mitigation strategy, rather than as relying solely on the technology for detecting potential cases.