Thermal Cameras at Airports: The Future of Travel and Airport Health Security

The thermal camera systems are being installed due to the recent pandemic, but they are here to stay.
Susan Fourtané
Thermal camera pre-screening at airport pixinoo/iStock

Thermal scanners are becoming crucial as a first line of defence against infectious diseases. Symptoms such as fever, shortness of breath, and cough are indications of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Although not visible, when infected, the body's immune system response triggers heat as a strategy to kill invading bacteria and viruses. Detecting an elevated body temperature can prevent mass infection. 

During and after the pandemic, public buildings such as airports, hospitals, educational institutions, corporate buildings, warehouses, and other places must adapt their premises to both ensure social distancing and also install thermal scanners to detect elevated body temperatures.

Monitoring events and public places scanning large volumes of people for a certain threshold temperature is becoming a normal procedure that most likely will remain in place for a long time, or even adopted as a new normal health security measure.

After a crisis, life usually resumes with new norms, changes that the general public will have to adopt, adapt to, and in cases, live with for the rest of their lives. We have seen it happen after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, known as 9/11 in which the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City was destroyed when two hijacked airplanes crashed making the Twin Towers collapse. Ever since then, airport security became what we know today. 

The future of travel 

future of travel
The future of travel is triggering anxiety among passengers, Source: Volodymyr Kryshtal/iStock

As temperatures begin to rise in the Northern Hemisphere, travelers start to get anxious after already a few months in lockdown. In The United Kingdom, British Airways, Ryanair, and EasyJet have recently announced that flights might be slowly picking up again.

The airlines have plans to schedule up to 40 to 50 percent of their usual flight capacity from the beginning of July. According to a report from the BBC, the airlines believe that normal scheduling of flights is not likely to return before 2023.

However, plans are still highly uncertain. It all depends on the easing of lockdowns and travel restrictions. In reality, nothing good can come out from three years of transforming the planet in an open prison. 

Health security and thermal security checks 

Athena Security's Elevated Body Temperature Detection System is part of a two-step screening, where the second step is a medical-grade thermometer. The system has been tested and adopted by Propeller Airports and Memorial Hermann Hospital, both in The U.S., and presumably both are planning on keeping the technology from now on. 

Propeller Airports in Seattle is the first public-private airport taking extra precautions to pre-screen anyone entering their terminals. The newly implemented measure assures passengers will be in a safe environment with no risks of contracting a viral infection. Propeller Airport did not immediately respond to a request for comment. With offices in Atlanta, New York, and Seattle, Propeller Airports develops and manages general aviation and commercial service airports with a focus on The U.S. market.  

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Memorial Hermann Hospital, the largest not-for-profit healthcare system in Texas, has also installed the Elevated Temperature Detection System at entrances. According to the hospital, they are installing the thermal-scanners due to the current pandemic; however, they plan on keeping them from now on since it increases the safety of patients and employees.

Heathrow Airport has also introduced temperature checks for passengers arriving in The United Kingdom in addition to a Coronavirus testing center in Heathrow car park. 

Amazon Inc installed thermal cameras in its warehouses to screen employees who could potentially be infected with COVID-19. Thermal cameras speed up the process that before was done by Amazon using forehead thermometers. Warehouses are essential to Amazon's operations, and by constantly screening its workers, the second-biggest corporate employer keeps the warehouses open by containing the virus' spread.

Other companies that have started to use the thermal camera technology include Tyson Foods Inc and Intel Corp. The camera systems that have been in use at airports in Asia after the SARS epidemic in 2003, can cost between $5,000 and $20,000. 

How the Thermal Detection System works 

According to Athena, its Elevated Temperature Detection System provides a non-invasive, non-contact, fast, and accurate mass screening for elevated temperatures. When a person looks at the camera from five feet away, the system finds the hottest point on the face near the eyes, called the inner canthus.

According to Athena, near the eyes is the area that most closely correlates with basal body temperatures. If the subject wears glasses, they have to remove them before looking at the camera. 

The Elevated Temperature Detection System is best utilized as the first of two checkpoint systems, where fever is then confirmed by a second FDA approved medical thermometer.

The frictionless system uses a high-precision temperature sensor with an accuracy within 0.3 ºC with Heat Source Reference Point (HSRP) (blackbody), automatically calibrates and adjusts based on ambient temperature conditions, and continuously self-calibrates for near zero drift without the need of manual recalculation or HSRP (blackbody). According to Athena Security, no personal information is tracked, the system is completely non-invasive, and is able to track 1,000 people per hour.

The Elevated Temperature Detection System is for indoor use and the temperature of multiple people can be taken simultaneously. The system's alert threshold has been set to 99.5 °F (37.5 °C). The system does not pick asymptomatic, non-febrile people. However, there are some cases when the human body temperature rises for reasons unrelated to a viral infection. This is one of the things to consider when checking on the reliability and efficiency of such a system.

The technology behind the Elevated Temperature Detection System

According to Athena, the Elevated Temperature Detection System does not collect any personal data and uses no facial recognition software; it is focused on pre-screening only. The system is a complete solution with all of the hardware and software to accurately detect people moving throughout entryways, doorways, or choke points. 

Using computer vision and an enterprise alert system the camera focuses on the inner eye which is the closest point to a person's base body temperature and through it, the sensors can detect temperature within +/- 0.3°C Accuracy. 

Alerts can be sent to a mobile phone, VMS, Security Platform, and/or Athena's cloud Website. A representative from Athena Security told me in an email statement that the system is fast, frictionless, contactless, and very accurate. The system also couples with Athena's gun detection surveillance camera -- a feature that seems to be incorporated to the thermal detection system -- in order to offer the most comprehensive security solution available. 

Variations in body temperature due to hormonal changes: Will you trigger the alarm? 

A woman's body temperature normally experiences variations. Hormonal changes happen throughout a woman's menstrual cycle. Levels of progesterone rise after an egg cell is released; and this raises the body temperature a day or two after ovulation. The body temperature stays high until the next cycle begins. If the woman becomes pregnant during that cycle, her body temperature will stay up beyond that. Changes in temperature can vary from woman to woman.

According to Michigan Medicine, before ovulation, a woman's basal body temperature (BBT) averages between 97°F (36.1°C) and 97.5°F (36.4°C). After ovulation, it rises to 97.6°F (36.4°C) to 98.6°F (37°C). In some cases, it can be higher. 

An increase in body temperature is one of the first signs of pregnancy. Extra body flow boosts body metabolism by about 20 percent. This creates more body heat. A pregnant woman's body temperature may often rise to about 37.8°C. This is not something to worry about when a woman is expecting. How is this going to play out if an expectant woman's temperature is screened using a thermal camera screening system in cases when it is not too evident that she is pregnant? 

According to Lisa Falzone, Athena Security CEO and Co-founder, "you can set our system so that the temperature threshold would not alarm for pregnancy, and I am nine months pregnant and it doesn’t trigger the alarm for me as proof." 

Athena Security previously released a surveillance system that claimed to detect guns and knives. The system used Artificial Intelligence but not facial recognition. The gun spotting surveillance system was released at the time The U.S. was suffering from mass killings in schools. The thermal screening solution sounds like a similar system combining temperature detection with gun spotting.

Installing thermal camera systems comes as a solution for detecting viral infections during a global pandemic. However, a higher than usual temperature does not always mean there is a viral infection, as mentioned above.

Time will tell how this thermal detection system is going to work in real scenarios, and most importantly, if it will prove to be efficient differentiating between a case of viral infection and one that is not. 

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