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Thermal imaging adoption poised to take off as COVID-19 persists

Privacy and public health concerns around thermal imaging are headed toward a collision. What can we do to adjust to the realities of life in the 2020s?

Travelers entering sections of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) are being fever checked by non-contact thermal imaging cameras as part of a pilot project to detect and deter COVID-19 infections. Autoworkers returning to Ford and General Motors plants will soon pass similar scanners as assembly lines rev up again. Guests of hotel-casinos in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and South Florida are having their temperatures taken by "eyes in the sky" as well. It's happening on Carnival Cruise Line ships, at Six Flags theme parks, and in Whole Foods grocery stores. Even the Pentagon has them in its visitors center.

A decades-old technology that many have regarded as a niche solution, thermal and infrared camera systems could soon become much more pervasive in our daily lives as organizations get safely back to business.

Mike Jude, a research director at IDC, predicts the global thermal imaging systems market will hit $8 billion by 2025 compared with $6 billion today.1 That 25 percent jump might not seem like much over a five-year period, but Jude says market growth was negligible before the coronavirus pandemic.

Some of the numerous players in the market include Athena; Draganfly; Electro Optical Industries; FLIR Systems; IPVM; Optotherm; Seek Thermal; and Thermoteknix Systems.

"It's becoming a substantial market," says Jude. "We talked to some significant companies before COVID-19 that said they were open-minded about thermal imaging cameras. Now, many are looking at building these systems into their budgets for next year, which is partly why we think this space has traction."

How thermal imaging works

While far from infallible, thermal cameras are one of several viable options for identifying the unwell in larger crowds of people as they enter facilities or wander about in open-air spaces. The idea is to spot individuals with body temperatures of 100.4 degrees or more—the current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) definition for someone with a fever. In many cases, as at LAX, anyone flagged is asked to voluntarily undergo secondary screenings with handheld thermometers. Those identified as possible COVID-19 cases would likely be advised to avoid going anywhere and to seek medical help.

Thermal cameras are usually just one of many tools applied for fever detection because they have specific uses. They do not, for example, detect disease. Rather, they use a combination of lenses, sensors, processing electronics, software, and servers to measure and then interpret the invisible infrared heat or energy emitted from a person's skin. The hotter a person or object, the more infrared radiation it produces. Thermal cameras capture and convert that into images people can view and analyze. Colder temperatures usually look blue, purple, or green. Warmer ones might be red, orange, yellow, or white.

Recognizing that numerous factors, such as heat from the sun or cold wind on a winter day, might impact these visualizations, some cameras specifically look at both the forehead and tear ducts to glean the most accurate and relevant information. Additional technology, such as database analytics and artificial intelligence, might also be applied to quickly compare and adjust findings about an individual against larger datasets pertaining to everything from average core body temperatures (not everyone runs at 98.6 F) to factors such as geography, age, gender, ethnicity, time of day, and even diet.

Successful rollouts

Chris Bainter, director of global business development at infrared tools maker FLIR Systems, says that, while potentially complicated, effectively using thermal imaging tools boils down to three basic requirements. First, the systems need the right performance level of thermal camera to make accurate measurements consistently. Second, they must measure at the right location to have the best correlation to core body temperature and avoid false positives. And third, the people operating and drawing data from the tools must be adequately trained in how to deploy, use, and maintain them.

"Customers focused on getting the doors back open are increasingly looking for integrated solutions that help them accomplish these three things," Bainter says. "They're also seeking to use AI and machine learning algorithms to automate pieces of that."

For instance, instead of positioning a camera along a general line of sight and then putting a digital measurement box around a person's head, AI or ML could deploy facial recognition for consistent and accurate readings, he says. Or it could automatically compare findings to, say, the last 10 screenings to see how someone compares against other individuals passing through the same or nearby checkpoints.


Cost-benefit considerations

IDC's Jude notes that most thermal imaging vendors are working diligently along all of these lines to improve and expand their offerings because they see an opportunity to capture market share. But they also recognize that there's still much to do to eliminate problems that commonly lead to false positives.

At the same time, Jude says the industry will need to collaborate so providers can bring overall prices down and make their technology more approachable for average organizations that might benefit from it.

"The average costs for one of these thermal imaging systems is around $12,000 to $14,000, and that's pretty expensive," he says. "If you wanted to plug the cameras into every ingress and egress point of a building, costs could add up quickly. Add in a fairly complicated AI system, and all of a sudden the cost-benefit curve starts looking a little strained. In some instances, it might be cheaper and faster to have a guard take individuals aside and check their temperatures with a non-contact forehead thermometer."

Jude says more companies are going through a cost-benefit analysis on thermal imaging that includes but also goes beyond simple monetary considerations.

"At some point, the investment in this technology might be disproportionate to the benefit you might get from it," he says. "But there are certain kinds of businesses or operations where identifying just one person with an elevated temperature who might have the coronavirus is well worth it. For example, what's the value of avoiding an outbreak in your critical fab lab? You can't afford to lose too many of those highly skilled people, even if they're just sick for a short while. The companies we've talked to are all wrestling with these kinds of issues and trying to determine best practices."

No privacy?

They are also weighing privacy concerns related to the technology. Anytime an organization captures the likenesses of individuals without their knowledge or approval, it can stir controversy, observers say. With thermal imaging cameras, privacy advocates may not yet be very outspoken because, after all, there is a global pandemic under way.

In addition, the right of governments to post cameras in public places or employers to monitor employees as they enter and leave corporate offices has been upheld time and again. Indeed, former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy's infamous 1999 quip that we "have zero privacy" and should "get over it" rings even truer today, though experts say it's more situational than anything.

For their part, most Americans seem more concerned about getting sick than with thermal cameras threatening their privacy. In fact, a Harris Poll taken March 28 to 30 found 84 percent of respondents supported a required health screening before someone is allowed to enter certain crowded public spaces. Nearly 80 percent backed screenings for entering certain businesses, such as restaurants, offices, and cinemas.

In the workplace, Boris Segalis, a New York-based partner at law firm Cooley LLP who specializes in online, data, and privacy issues, says concerns most often come down to how data is collected and used. But with thermal imaging and fever checking, Segalis doesn't see much of a problem because he doesn't envision employers wanting to hold onto such information.

"Employers, in my experience, want to do the right thing," he says. "They're just not interested in suddenly collecting a bunch of information about employees that they wouldn't otherwise need. They could, but there's no incentive for them to do that."


Segalis says that, in most cases, temperature data shouldn't be stored. It should be checked and almost immediately discarded. In instances where an organization has some reason for keeping it longer, he recommends doing so for only 30 days or less—and never sharing it—to minimize the risk of potential issues. Some thermal systems have built-in privacy controls to help organizations stay on top of this, he adds.

Gabriela Zanfir-Fortuna, senior counsel with the Future of Privacy Forum, says some available tools are "more privacy invasive than others." However, of most concern is how they might lead to discrimination and a loss of opportunity.

"Imagine, for example, someone trying to enter a room to take their bar exam," she says. "Maybe they have another underlying condition that affects their temperature, but a [COVID] screening prevents them from sitting for the test, which could have huge consequences for their professional life."

To head off such consequences, the Future of Privacy recommends carefully analyzing whether the benefits of thermal cameras outweigh the risks of violating the civil rights of individuals who would be subjected to such screening. Zanfir-Fortuna says these concerns are particularly acute when organizations screen individuals en masse. As such, advice from public health authorities, public health specialists, and other regulators should be sought as part of this assessment, she says.

"Safeguards should always be in place," Zanfir-Fortuna emphasizes. "Nobody should automatically be rejected from entering a space, potentially causing them to miss out on an opportunity because a scan says they have a certain temperature."

1"Thermal Imaging and Disease Detection: A Rapidly Evolving Market, But Challenges Remain," IDC, June 2020

Thermal imaging: At a glance

  • Businesses should be prepared to implement some form of temperature checking on a long-term basis.
  • For the public, it will take more than simple thermal imaging to provide an acceptable level of protection.
  • Privacy concerns will need to be addressed when interacting with the general public.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.