As Israelis adjust to a new normal of temperature checks during every shopping trip, defense companies are innovating to make the process more accurate and less invasive.
Store workers have suddenly found themselves expected to check customers’ temperatures. They greet arrivals with hand-held thermometers to fulfill the government’s new rules, instituted on Sunday, aimed at stopping people with a fever from entering. Bosses also need to check workers’ temperatures.
Like in other countries that have introduced temperature checks, store owners are eager to automate the process. Just as metal detector arches have become a feature of Israeli life because of terror threats, temperature screening machines are widely expected to become commonplace because of coronavirus. And such devices have suddenly become big business.
In Israel, the technology is being developed at lightning speed, because the building blocks are there in the defense sector. “Normally, my company makes technology to intercept malicious drones,” said Matan Melamed, CEO of Iron-Drone and a graduate of the IDF intelligence unit 8200, which is famous for producing innovators who repurpose military ideas. “We wanted to help fight coronavirus, but we can’t make masks and know nothing of ventilators, yet we know thermal cameras really really well.
“Within two days we realized what a temperature device should look like and designed it. The prototype was tested at a customer’s site, a supermarket, within two weeks.”
Production of his ThermoGate machine began on Monday, and he expects that with two weeks Israelis will be using them to scan themselves at workplaces and stores. He predicts that they will stay in place long after the coronavirus crisis subsides. “Everybody will feel safer with temperature checks in the future,” he said, adding that employers are likely to see them as a way to keep the workforce healthy.
While Melamed was designing his ThermoGate machine, engineers at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, one of Israel’s three largest defense companies, were developing their own temperature checker. “They took an existing thermal camera which we use in systems on airplanes and jets, the same camera, and gave it a set of algorithms that can detect body temperature,” said Ofri Rimoni, the company’s corporate communications manager.
Rafael’s temperature checker is already in place at Bnei Zion Hospital in Haifa and HaEmek Medical Center in Afula — but the people it screens hardly notice. Using a camera that looks like those seen at many passport controls, it assesses the temperature of everyone who walks through the door, and shows the results to security guards.
“A lot of thermal cameras can only measure the temperature of one person,” said Rimoni, explaining that Rafael’s checks many people simultaneously. “With this they don’t even have to stop.”
Security staff see a screen with each person passing the camera, and their temperature in degrees Celsius in green numbers on top of their head. If somebody appears to have a fever, they are diverted to the emergency room.
Rimoni said that Rafael is currently producing the machines just for hospitals and clinics, but expects to soon take orders from shops and malls, attracted by the potential for scanning crowds. “If a mall opens up and there are five people with high body temperature, it will identify them,” she said.
Dani Steinberg, deputy director of Bnei Zion, told Rafael scientists who visited the hospital that their technology gives his staff peace of mind, enables the hospital to run more smoothly, “and ultimately saves lives.”
According to Melamed, thermal scanning isn’t just more efficient and less intrusive than thermometer checks — it is more accurate, and less likely to raise false alarms.
“Handheld thermometers are cheap equipment and not continually calibrated,” he said. “More important still is the measurement method. The temperature of the forehead varies a lot. A more accurate place to measure is around the eyes, the tear duct. We measure the whole face and are able to detect the point that gives the most accurate reading.”
He added: “It could be taking a reading at tens or even hundreds of points on the face. Just think how may pixels there are in the camera.”
His device, unlike Rafael’s, works by screening people one by one after they approach the machine, but said that it has the advantage of cutting down the need for monitoring. It can be installed in places that don’t have a dedicated security guard as there is no need for staff to operate or constantly check the machine, he said. Instead, a shop employee is alerted if somebody has an elevated body temperature, and simply approaches the customer at the machine.
Melamed said that the cameras he uses are readily available, but the major challenge has been processing the data. “Thermal cameras were initially made for defense purposes and for security. They were made to see stuff, not to measure,” he explained.
Programmers needed to build a processing system that understands which parts of the face to focus on and what importance to attribute to the temperature of specific areas. The system also needed a way to constantly check that it is calibrated correctly to read temperature. This was achieved by adding a heated element in to the frame that stays at a constant temperature, so that the system can check it is reading this accurately.
In the final product, all of this happens in the blink of an eye, he said. “It detects your temperature in half a second, and you get a green light or a red light,” he said. “It’s mostly self service.”
He added: “We think it’s going to be the new standard in supermarkets, malls, bus stations, stadiums, arenas, theaters. They will all need it. I believe it will be regular throughout the world soon and I think the way to go is automation.”