Can infrared technologies protect us from Covid-19?

We are today entering a new era when sanitary checks will be regularly required to travel, do shopping, or have a social and cultural life. In this article and the related new Yole Développement (Yole) report, “Thermal Imagers and Detectors 2020 – COVID-19 Outbreak Impact – Preliminary Report”, we analyze how the Covid-19 outbreak could affect the thermal technology market and industrial landscape.

To resume normal air traffic, air passenger screening to detect travelers with signs or symptoms of infectious disease will require new modalities. Thermal imagers could be used as a fast primary testing solution. This won’t be the first time actually. In the previous SARS, H1N1 and Ebola epidemics thermal cameras were used in some airports to screen travelers for fever. Of course, the size of the previous epidemics was not big enough to give this technology much attention. The way forward would be a triage process. Thermal imagers based on microbolometer technology can be installed at airports. If a fever is detected, then the traveler could be taken aside to get further tested with a more accurate handheld contactless thermometer. If the fever is proven, then they can be isolated for further examination, either a history check, and/or a diagnostics test, provided that it gives results in a reasonable amount of time.

Airports are not the only places where thermal imagers can be the new norm. In April 2020, more than 50 Amazon warehouses had cases of Covid-19. Typically, workers were having their temperatures checked by handheld thermometers at the entrance. Amazon installed thermal cameras at some of their sites, which allows for faster screening. If needed, a secondary, forehead temperature check is performed if the employee is flagged from the camera, according to Reuters. Other companies that have explored using the thermal camera technology include Tyson Foods Inc and Intel Corp. Even some schools in China have started using them. This is an example of how businesses and infrastructure are turning to methods for containing the spread of virus by using technologies that previously went unnoticed by the general public.

More businesses can adopt thermal cameras. In all countries, between 5% and 10% of enterprises have more than fifty persons employed according to the OECD. To return to work, they could use thermal cameras to monitor body temperatures of employees as well. Here we are talking about cameras in the order of hundreds of thousands units.

But this might not be enough. Everyone will probably want to have the ability to check their body temperature at any time. We have here a big market opportunity for integration of thermal imaging into smartphones or wearables. This integration has been in process for years. And it has long been perceived as the next sensor to be integrated in a mobile phone after pressure, inertial MEMS, or CMOS imagers. However, when 3D sensing technology was launched by Apple in 2017, all smartphone manufacturers focused their effort on this application, and were not interested in thermal imaging. Nowadays, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, people are much more sensitive to checking their own temperature and those of people around them, usually several times per day. Integration of a contactless thermometer could make sense. So there could be a revival of the use case of thermal imaging capability or temperature measurement in a smartphone or a wearable in the future. Which of the two technologies would prevail: thermopile for simple sensing or microbolometer for imaging? One key issue beyond technical integration/cost and accuracy is also an educational one. We need a minimum of knowledge to understand a thermal image. Without this proper knowledge, users could misunderstand the thermal images in their smartphone, thus creating more anxiety in the case of a false alarm. But either thermal detector thermopiles or imager microbolometers, we are talking here about a smartphone market opportunity of many tens of millions of units. Of course, reliability, form-factor and cost requirements set by the smartphone market should be met, in order for this technology to be massively adopted.

Uses cases and asociated thermal cameras - Yole Développement

To address this thermal imaging frenzy, Yole just released a new report on the impact that Covid-19 could have on thermal imaging and sensing markets. For thermal imagers/cameras, we expect more than 1.5M elevated body temperature cameras used for fever detection to be deployed cumulatively between 2020-2023 at airports, businesses, and in various infrastructure. In US$ value, we estimate the total thermal camera market to be worth $7.6B in 2020, almost half of which would be cameras dedicated for elevated body temperature/fever screening. For thermal detectors, volumes are expected to skyrocket in 2020 due to more shipments of thermal detectors based on thermopile technology for temperature measurement.

Of course, these systems will not be a panacea, especially for fever detection associated to Covid-19. As with facial recognition, remote fever detection raises potential concerns around accuracy, bias, and privacy, particularly if it is linked with other identifying factors. Some people have naturally elevated temperatures or show fevers due to other viruses, illnesses, and infectious or non-infectious diseases. Others who have the virus might be asymptomatic. Real diagnosis should be done with proper molecular testing or immunoassay tests. Therefore, thermal cameras should only claim to be used to detect variations of surface temperatures, which could potentially be a symptom of Covid-19 or other viruses/illnesses. One thing is for sure. In Asia and in China particularly, this move will come quicker or at least face fewer problems when compared to Europe and US, where privacy concerns could halt the mass and rapid deployment of thermal imaging systems in public.


Eric Mounier - Yole Développement

With more than 25+ years’ experience within the semiconductor industry, Eric Mounier PhD. is Fellow Analyst at Yole Développement (Yole). Eric provides daily in-depth insights into current and future semiconductor trends, markets and innovative technologies (such as Quantum computing, Si photonics, new sensing technologies, new type of sensors …). Based on relevant methodological expertise and a strong technological background, he works closely with all the teams at Yole to point out disruptive technologies and analyze and present business opportunities through technology & market reports and custom consulting projects. With numerous internal workshops on technologies, methodologies, best practices and more, Yole’s Fellow Analyst ensures the training of Yole’s Technology & Market Analysts.
In this position, Eric Mounier has spoken in numerous international conferences, presenting his vision of the semiconductor industry and latest technical innovations. He has also authored or co-authored more than 100 papers as well as more than 120 Yole’s technology & market reports.
Previously, Eric held R&D and Marketing positions at CEA Leti (France).
Eric Mounier has a PhD. in Semiconductor Engineering and a degree in Optoelectronics from the National Polytechnic Institute of Grenoble (France).

Dimitrios Damianos - Yole Développement

Dimitrios Damianos, PhD joined Yole Développement (Yole) as a Technology and Market Analyst and is working within the Photonics, Sensing & Display division.
Dimitrios is daily working with his team to deliver valuable technology & market reports regarding the imaging industry including photonics & sensors.
After his research on theoretical and experimental quantum optics and laser light generation, Dimitrios pursued a Ph.D. in optical and electrical characterization of dielectric materials on silicon with applications in photovoltaics and image sensors, as well as SOI for microelectronics at Grenoble’s university (France).
In addition, Dimitrios holds a MSc degree in Photonics from the University of Patras (Greece). He has also authored and co-authored several scientific papers in international peer-reviewed journals.

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