The global infrared camera market is currently projected to swell from $6 billion in 2019 to $10 billion by 2026. The technology is increasingly used as a stopgap measure to control coronavirus spread in areas where there is high-density foot traffic.
“For 17 years we’ve been providing [infrared] technology, but primarily to ports and borders, airports, trying to screen for people coming through customs that may have a virus,” the CEO of one of the largest U.S. thermal device manufacturers, FLIR Systems, told CNBC. “If we look at SARS, H1N1, Ebola, all of those together don’t compare to the demand we’ve seen now. And from customers you wouldn’t have expected.”
The fastest COVID-19 test currently approved by the FDA is an antigen test that takes approximately 15 minutes. At $20, it is also much cheaper than the typical $100 PCR test but can miss about 20 percent of infections.
Infrared cameras could act as a supplement to existing testing but have their drawbacks.
While fever is the most common symptom of COVID-19 (apparent in 83 to 99 percent of symptomatic cases), not all febrile individuals will have COVID-19. Current estimates by the CDC are that 40 percent of infected people will have no symptoms at all.
According to the FDA, some studies have shown that using contactless temperature measurements alone can miss more than 50 percent of those infected with COVID-19.
Still, the appeal of instantaneous and contactless mass screenings is undeniable, and companies and governmental institutions in the U.S. are starting to turn to the technology.
In June, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) added thermal-imaging cameras, followed by all of Hawaii’s airports in July. Government buildings from courthouses to schools have started purchasing them. Amazon has been using the technology throughout the pandemic at its warehouses.
The U.S. is far behind many Asian countries in both manufacturing and deploying thermal imaging cameras. Amazon went so far as to buy their thermal cameras from Zhejiang Dahua Technology, a Chinese company on the U.S. blacklist for its alleged role in monitoring Uighurs.
“There’s only a handful of companies in the United States that actually make infrared medical devices,” said Infrared Cameras Inc. CEO Gary Strahan. “Well, now it’s a huge market. So all these people, people with zero experience in manufacturing any kind of infrared device, they’re buying sensors, they’re putting stuff together.“
In April, the FDA changed its enforcement policy for “telethermographic systems not intended for a medical purpose,” removing requirements that thermal imaging systems be authorized by the FDA to increase their availability.
Although there have been concerns about the safety of thermal cameras, these concerns are unfounded. Infrared cameras capture energy, like any other camera, and do not emit radiation.
“The individual tested is in no way subjected to exposure to infrared radiation during the temperature measurement…there is no basis for risks associated with their use.”