FLIR thermal-imaging infrared camera
FLIR Systems’ technology has found a role in global public health crises by helping screen people for elevated body temperatures. (Jonas Axelsson / FLIR photo)

The coronavirus/COVID-19 global health crisis may bring expanded use of technology with ties to Goleta as thermal-imaging cameras gain a wider role in helping spot people with elevated temperatures before they board airplanes, enter sports stadiums or visit amusement parks. 

FLIR Systems Inc., which designs, manufactures and markets thermal-imaging infrared cameras, has seen increased interest in the tool since the novel coronavirus created a public health crisis across the globe.

“The advantage is with our tool, you can do that initial screening on a high number of people,” said Chris Bainter, FLIR business development director.

The FLIR system allows screeners to check for elevated body temperature from a safe distance, especially in high-traffic public places, producing an image on the screen that appears like something from a science-fiction movie.

“Even noncontact thermometers still have you getting well within that 6-foot buffer. That’s where our technology offers a unique value to this application,” Bainter said.

FLIR Goleta, operating in a building on Hollister Avenue with about 575 employees, serves as the hub for production of the cameras, representatives said. 

Some Asian countries, especially South Korea and China, began using thermal cameras during the SARS outbreak in 2003, but the interest has grown recently amid the COVID-19 crisis. 

Jim Cannon, FLIR president and chief executive officer, said the company, which has its headquarters in Oregon, has started “experiencing strong demand” for its thermal cameras to be used in elevated body temperature screening.

FLIR managers refer to their manufacturing employees as “front-line heroes” since they work to make sure products that can help combat the pandemic continue to get produced.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep up with the demand,” Bainter said.

In addition to travel-related uses, medical facilities and manufacturing plants employ the technology, and Bainter expects FLIR thermal cameras will become more commonplace in society.

Most sites with a large number of people now have metal detector screenings, so the FLIR technology could add another layer, he said. Amusement parks, concert venues and sports stadiums have recently started showing an interest in using FLIR’s technology. 

“Layering in an elevated skin temperature screening solution for a lot of these customers makes sense and could be part of that moving forward,” he said. 

For this technology, it turns out that tear ducts — not the forehead or face — provide the best correlation to core body temperature, according to Bainter. Overall, the skin on a person’s face can be more susceptible to temperature changes because of environmental factors. In contrast, tear ducts remain more stable through environmental conditions such as someone coming in from cold or hot weather or having recently removed a hat.

FLIR customers typically require someone with an elevated body temperature to undergo further screening to determine whether they are actually ill, Bainter said.

“Our tool isn’t a COVID detecting camera. It doesn’t detect diseases. Frankly, it doesn’t even tell whether somebody has a fever,” Bainter said. “We’re just detecting an elevation in skin temperature which may then be proven to be a medical condition or not.”

In mid-March, a FLIR customer, Emirates, announced plans to implement thermal screening measures for all of its airline passengers traveling on U.S. flights departing from Dubai International Airport. If a passenger is found to have a higher than normal temperature, they will undergo further testing. 

“This is in addition to the thermal screenings done for all passengers on arrival as they pass through customs,” the airline said in a written statement.

Emirates planned to gradually roll out thermal screening procedures for all of its flights departing Dubai to ensure the health and safety of its customers traveling abroad.

Because of the price — $5,000 to $10,000 or even higher — consumers can’t buy off-the-shelf thermal cameras at a local drug store for this purpose, Bainter said.

FLIR suggests using only FDA-approved thermal cameras for the purpose, including handheld point-and-shoot models of E95, E85 and E75; handheld or tripod-mounted models of T1020, T530, T540, T840, T860 and A655sc; or fixed-mounted cameras of A310 and A615.

Bainter also offered words of caution, noting that FLIR has 10 years of experience in elevated body temperature technology and warning that some in the industry boost the capabilities but don’t provide proper education to ensure the best accuracy.

“We want people to be successful. Hopefully, it’s with a FLIR product; but regardless, we want them to have the best success because helping maintain a healthy, safe working environment is important to everybody,” he said. 

A video demonstration of the FLIR system can be viewed by clicking here.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.