Infrared Cameras Could Be the New CCTV
Thermal imaging company FLIR found itself in a rut this February. The company reported lower revenue than expected for the fourth quarter of 2019, causing a sell-off that cratered its stock by nearly 60%.
But that was before the coronavirus shut down the U.S. economy.
Now, Amazon is installing real-time thermal imaging in its fulfillment centers to screen workers. That’s prompting Wall Street speculation of thermal imaging companies like FLIR, which has seen its stock jump nearly 20% in recent days. The company says it has also been seeing a jump in demand in past weeks.
“We’ve clearly seen a significant spike in interest for thermal cameras for this mission,” says Ezra Merrill, director of marketing for FLIR. “Everywhere you look, people are trying to find how best to provide safety for those in the workforce, those who are traveling, people who are going into stores.”
Companies like Amazon, casinos, and supermarkets are adopting thermal cameras to help identify sick workers and customers at scale. Thermal cameras able to accurately detect body temperature like the ones developed by FLIR have been around for 20 years and have seen similar demand cycles before.
Merrill says that interest in thermal cameras capable of detecting elevated body temperatures has surged a few times since the company’s investment into the technology in 2003, notably during the outbreaks of SARS, H1N1, and Ebola.
“We’ve clearly seen a significant spike in interest for thermal cameras for this mission.”
Gary Strahan, founder of Infrared Cameras Inc., told The Telegraph that there’s typically a surge in demand for thermal imaging around disease outbreaks.
But the ambiguous timeline and scale of the current coronavirus pandemic might mean that the technology could experience sustained interest and maybe even become a new normal in shops and public spaces.
“I believe you are going to see infrared cameras become as common as CCTV,” Strahan said.
Thermal imaging cameras can come in a few different varieties. Some can be handheld or sit on tripods, and others can become permanent installations in places like security checkpoints. Being screened typically involves standing in front of a camera for a moment and removing eyewear like glasses. The camera looks at the hottest places on the face, usually the tear ducts, according to Merrill, and determines skin temperature.
However, accuracy is not guaranteed in the slim margins of the two to three degrees that are the difference between a healthy adult and one who might have a fever. Thermal cameras like FLIR’s can read 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above or below a person’s true temperature. In a Wired test, a FLIR camera read the writer’s temperature by two degrees cooler than his actual body temperature.
Companies like Draganfly are introducing aerial fever detection via drones, starting in Australia and Connecticut. In China, companies that make temperature-sensing cameras that can screen many people at once have sold thousands of units — a tenfold increase in typical business, according to Forbes. The accuracy of these mass thermal surveillance tools is unknown.
Historically, the biggest customers for thermal imaging were transportation security checkpoints in Asia, Merrill says. Thermal cameras have been used in airports in countries like Singapore since the 2003 SARS outbreak. But as the impact of the coronavirus has grown, demand has become global.
Workplaces in the United States don’t typically conduct health care checks on workers. “Prior to Covid-19, there were people who were always cognizant of flu season, but there was not a health and well-being safety check,” says Brian Barry, president of consultant firm F. Curtis Barry & Company, a fulfillment and warehousing consultant whose clientele has included American Eagle, Tractor Supply Company, and L.L. Bean.
“I believe you are going to see infrared cameras become as common as CCTV.”
Part of the reason for that is legislative: To avoid discrimination for disabilities or health problems, U.S. legislators have passed a series of privacy laws to protect workers. The Americans with Disabilities Act, for instance, prohibits employer-mandated medical tests. Barry says that in response to the current pandemic, he’s heard different guidelines given to facilities on the legality of testing an employee’s health from state to state.
In early April, the national Equal Employment Opportunity Commission loosened its guidelines. Now, as long as the data is kept confidential in line with national regulations, employers can ask for symptoms of the coronavirus and take temperatures. With this guidance, national companies like Amazon, Walmart, Kroger, and Home Depot have started testing employees’ temperatures.
Health experts point out that thermal cameras are not a silver bullet for detecting and tracking the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that people can carry the disease without symptoms or transmit the disease before symptoms become present.
But thermal cameras can catch elevated temperature, which is considered by the CDC to be one of the most common symptoms of the coronavirus. And if the technology offers any bit of respite or comfort from the coronavirus, it’s likely that they’ll be in demand for the foreseeable future.