Q&A: preventing the spread of diseases with body screening systems

Ilaria Grasso Macola 8 July 2020 (Last Updated July 8th, 2020 11:01)

British manufacturer Ametek Land has launched a new body screening system that detects high temperature, a symptom currently associated with coronavirus. We spoke to the company to find out more about Viralert 3 and the future of body screening systems.

Q&A: preventing the spread of diseases with body screening systems
Dr Droegmoeller’s expertise was drawn from his personal experience with SARS. Credit: Peter Droegmoeller.

Due to the current Covid-19 pandemic, airports have started checking people’s temperature on arrival in an attempt to control the spread of the virus.

British manufacturing company Ametek Land has launched Viralert 3, a new body screening system to be used in public spaces such as stations and airports.

Using a camera and a temperature-controlled reference source on a single mounting, the system can measure temperatures without any human interaction or pressing any buttons.

Although the system does not detect coronavirus or any specific disease, it highlights when someone has a high temperature, helping authorities pre-screen those who show coronavirus-related symptoms.

Ametek Land’s director of innovation and technology Dr Peter Drögmöller explains how Viralert 3 came about and why it will become part of the ‘new normal’.

 

Ilaria Grasso Macola (IGM): When and how was Viralert 3 developed and what was the rationale behind it?

Peter Drögmöller (PD):  Viralert 3 is the third version of a product that we originally developed between 2002 and 2003, during the SARS outbreak.

During the last 17 years, we have looked at the technology that was developed and implemented some of the changes into the third version of Viralert.

Since 2003, when we patented the technology, Viralert has remained one of the most accurate temperature measurement systems also because of the use of blackbody, a device used to transfer temperature standards internationally.

We have managed to develop a blackbody that matches a person’s emissivity and therefore self-compensates for any ambient temperature reflected from a person’s skin.

 

IGM: On a practical level, how does Viralert 3 work?

PD: Viralert 3 is a system that consists of two cameras, a video camera and an infrared camera. While the video camera is used to determine where a person is standing and their distance from it, the infrared camera is measuring the body temperature.

By the combination of both cameras, we are able to provide a temperature measurement to every person that is standing in front of it.

 

IGM: Ametek Land has been working on Viralert for the last 10 years. How did the coronavirus pandemic impact the project?

PD: Our main focus is high-temperature industrial applications, which is where our core market is. We have not focused on this product before because until the pandemic broke out, [ours] was quite a cyclical business.

Moreover, if you look at previous epidemics such as the 2009 swine flu, only 40% of people infected cases had shown a fever, making fever measurements not useful. Covid-19 was actually very similar to what happened with SARS in 2003 and that is why body temperature measurements, in this case, are a feasible alternative to pre-selecting people that show symptoms.

IGM: What challenges did you encounter while developing the project?

PD: I think the biggest challenge is the timing to market. Luckily, we were already working with the detection methods and looking for hotspots on pile monitoring into biomass and coal pile.

We’re using the same technology and repurposing it but at the same time we were always known as experts on black bodies, so we just combined the two technologies, allowing us to get to a solution very quickly.

 

IGM: How has your experience with SARS had an effect on the development of Viralert 3?

PD: I was working already in the development of infrared cameras when I was actually on the flight from New York to Frankfurt that brought the first SARS case into Europe.

Everybody on the flight had to quarantine for two weeks and all I had to do while in quarantine was taking my temperature, with the German ministry of health calling me twice a day.

Back then I started thinking that there must be a better way [for health authorities] to track temperature, without relying on people’s own measurements.

Due to the fact that quarantine measures were not well-communicated, I went to a hospital in order to find out what I was supposed to do. When I talked to the doctor, he told me not to come to hospitals because of [the risk of infecting] sick people. It’s the same experience that everybody now, unfortunately, goes through 17 years later.

That gave me a bit of a head start in thinking about this.

 

IGM: From a transport point of view, what are the pros and cons of Viralert 3?

PD: The pros are that Viralert 3 is one additional tool that allows you to pre-screen people before entering an enclosed space to see if they have an elevated temperature.

The cons are the perceived capability of infrared that is almost [like a] Hollywood [film]. If you see a Hollywood film, with infrared you can see the inside of buildings but in the real world’s physics that does not work.

That’s the challenge, to put people through the system in a safe way, but then again we all go through scanners at the airport so there shouldn’t be a problem with that.

 

IGM: What is the future of body screening systems like Viralert 3? Are they going to become the norm in places such as airports and stations?

PD: Having been in Asia for quite a bit, I think body screening systems have become the norm over there already while I think the West is to a large degree catching up.

In the future, I would see these systems working more in the background rather than on the front page, as they are now, but it will be just green or red light.