Is thermal imaging the light at the end of the tunnel for businesses?

When we think of thermal imaging cameras and technology, we tend to think about police dramas on television or investigative documentaries, but there is a very important place for it in the real world too.

Different countries, organisations and businesses have been looking for innovative ways to get back to normal after COVID-19 struck, and this means checking for people who might be unknowingly carrying symptoms.

There have been many solutions that require close contact, long wait times or high cost, but it seems that thermal imaging might just be the light at the end of the tunnel that we have all been waiting for.

What is thermal imaging?

Thermal imaging uses a camera which is capable of detecting heat energy. It usually has a heat sensor which is attached to a special type of lens which can identify regions of excessive temperature or wasted heat energy. Warmer elements of an image will appear as reds, oranges and yellows on a colour map, or darker spots on black and white displays. They are used to measure infrared radiation which exists at wavelengths between visible light and microwaves.

The sensor array is constructed as a grid of pixels which converts the wavelengths that hit it into electronic signals. An algorithm translates these into a colour map of different temperature values that the end user is then able to read.

Thermal imaging is thought to be high-end technology with a price tag to match, but there are now a number of different systems which can even incorporate smartphone detectors. They can be put to use in a whole range of industries, including government agencies, schools, hospitals, police stations, warehouses, distribution centres, polling stations, care homes, shops and many different private businesses. They can give precise temperature readings, or they can be set to detect temperatures within certain parameters.

Thermal imaging and COVID-19

When COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill, it was difficult to know how it would be able to resume. Understanding how events might now go ahead, or how shops and entertainment centres would comfortably allow people into their premises has been tricky, but it seems like thermal imaging might just have the answer.

One of the biggest issues we have faced in fighting this virus, is the number of people who are infectious and do not know it. That has meant we all have to be vigilant for any symptoms which may be the tell-tale signs of a coronavirus carrier. We have long been aware of the main symptoms of COVID-19, one of which being a high temperature, which has led to many businesses introducing temperature checks on their doors.

Whilst this might seem like a good idea, it is very labour intensive, increases the amount of close contact between staff and customers, and interrupts the experience of those customers. This is why there is now an intense focus on the use of thermal imaging, which was first employed in Wuhan, China when drones were flown across the city with cameras attached in order spot anyone who might be unwell. Not everyone wants to take the same approach, but the technology has proved to be useful in other settings.

Mass temperature checking is not a new idea, and the use of thermal imagining in the tracking of infectious diseases has already been prompted by the SARS, MERS and Ebola epidemics. Thermal scanning began operation in airports several years ago and has now become something we are all used to when travelling abroad. Its use could now become a vital tool in the fight against the spread of COVID-19.

The temperature is usually taken on the forehead, but the accuracy of this is unreliable as it can cool down as a result of perspiration. The inner corner of the eyelid is therefore thought to be the best spot for a fast and reliable temperature measurement as it tends to remain more constant. This very small area can be picked up by a thermal imaging camera, creating a result that can be trusted.

Thermal imaging has the capability to measure body temperature to precise levels without disrupting visitors, and it can check large numbers of people at a time. This can become an accurate, non-contact method of spotting underlying infection and protecting key workers and other customers. Once an elevated temperature is detected, the systems can sound an alarm to alert whoever is monitoring the process, and person-to-person contact will have been minimised.

The benefit of installing thermal imaging technology is that it can pick up any type of fever. This is usually a symptom of an infectious disease, and so can work to prevent the spread of more than just coronavirus. Thermal imaging also has the benefit of speed on its side, which is vital in maintaining the flow of customers or visitors through your business. Whilst many forms of COVID testing can take time, a thermal imaging camera needs just a few seconds to spot a high temperature and send an appropriate alert.

With so many businesses looking for workable solutions to reopening in the face of restrictions, anxieties and social distancing, thermal imaging provides an answer that could be very effective. It is non-invasive, difficult to trick and exact, making it a practical way out of what has seemed like an impossible situation. This means it can prevent businesses from having to close again or help others open their doors after a long time shut.

It is in no doubt that the world has changed since the pandemic, and many businesses will have looked at their existing practices and how they might change both in the short and long term. By bringing in technology such as thermal imaging, it can be possible to spot asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus and protect everyone involved in your business. Looking ahead, this technology could still have a place in protecting against any number of infectious diseases, leaving your business a safe place to be that can continue to function no matter what.