A red-hot idea to use technology developed to track predators to identify people with fevers is being trialled. David Williams reports.

Tech entrepreneur brothers are testing a Kiwi-made fever finder as the country’s businesses prepare to open once the Covid-19-forced national lockdown lifts.

It’s just the latest case of business people, tech experts, and scientists putting their heads, and money, together to try and protect the public.

Similar to overseas, it seems likely digital fixes will augment public health measures to find confirmed cases of the virus, and help trace their contacts.

Cantabrian Grant Ryan, the inventor of Yike Bike, established non-profit organisation Cacophony Project four years ago in the hope of finding cheap, easily deployable technologies to identify and kill predators of native birds.

Last year, his older brother Shaun, with whom he co-founded e-commerce company SLI Systems, set up 2040 Ltd, which has the backing of Rich Lister Sam Morgan, to make and sell Cacophony’s thermal imaging cameras.

Less than a month ago, as the global pandemic’s grip tightened, the Ryans started taking calls, including from pandemic specialist Roger Dennis, suggesting their cameras be re-purposed. The idea was that businesses and agencies could use them to test staff and customers for elevated temperatures – a possible symptom of the virus.

Over a weekend, contract engineer Chris Blackbourn developed a workable prototype, and the Cacophony’s team was put full-time on the system’s development. Expert help has come from Crown entity Callaghan Innovation, University of Canterbury, and MedTech CoRE, a medical devices research body at the University of Auckland.

“It’s been really good to see what people can do when they just want to get stuff done.” – Shaun Ryan

The camera systems are being trialled at the police’s call centre in central Christchurch – where staff already have temperature checks at the start of shifts – an Auckland bank, and a meatworks.

Shaun Ryan says: “We’ve got two hospitals, that have got cameras, that are working out when they’re going to deploy the trial.”

Tests involve people walking past a camera atop a tripod. Within seconds, a screen flashes green if their temperature is normal, or red if it’s elevated. Personal information isn’t collected and the camera’s output isn’t recorded or stored. Each business will decide what to do when a fever is detected.

The cameras are being sold by 2040 Ltd for $3300, with the first batch expected to be available by the end of the month.

Investors have chipped in – including a loan from Trade Me founder Morgan’s Jasmine Social Investments – to bankroll the initial manufacturing run of 190 cameras. The thermal sensors come from the United States, circuit boards are made offshore, and the units are put together in Christchurch.

Pursuing the Covid-19 project hasn’t meant abandoning their conservation mission as profits will be ploughed back into Cacophony Project.

“It’s just the right thing to do at the moment,” Ryan says. “And if it’s successful it should help us with our core mission.”

He adds: “It’s been really good to see what people can do when they just want to get stuff done.”

Low-cost and simple

Grant Ryan, the Yike Bike inventor, says the advantage with 2040’s system is its relatively low cost for a simple result.

Checking by thermometers leads to plastic waste, while forehead devices are held 30cm away, within the two-metre physical distancing guidelines. The top-end temperature-detecting devices, used at some airports, are extremely expensive.

Ryan says it’s impractical to take swabs from hundreds of thousands of people a day, in this country at least, and it takes time to get the result of lab tests.

“We know that only some Covid-19 people have fevers. But data are suggesting the ones that have fevers have virus loads of 50 to 60 times the amount of virus, so it’s assumed they’re a lot more infectious than those that don’t have fevers.

“You want to identify people as early as possible so you can start your track and tracing, and then you don’t want those people going into places where they can spread it around, particularly high-risk people.”

(A statement from Callaghan Innovation says temperature readings are key in helping to detect Covid-19 as most sufferers will get a fever. It is the first symptom to appear for many people, but some may still feel fine even though they have one.)

Ryan says there’s flexibility to set the temperature range lower for places of high-risk, like hospitals and rest homes.

Even if only a small number of people with the virus have fevers, he says there’s huge value in catching people early, especially when they’re infectious, so they can be isolated and tested.

“It’s not the solution but it fits in as part of a whole suite,” he says. “If this enables us to open a little bit earlier or be a bit more open, then there’s massive economic advantages and social advantages.”

Waiting for that elusive fever

There have been teething problems. While the technology has been reassuring to staff being tested, Ryan says there’s a danger people relax after they’ve been cleared. That might mean they’re not as careful about physical distancing.

“It’s not a fail-safe.”

Brother Shaun says a particular bugbear is no one with a fever has been scanned. “That’s where hoping with the hospitals we’re more likely to find people with fevers.”

People have to ensure they’re the calibrated distance away from the unit when tested, he says.

Another curve ball has been cameras homing in on coffee, in that case being carried by bank staff. Software could be used mask out certain portions of the screen, he says. “So if people hold their coffee below a certain level, on the mark, then it won’t register that.”

One system triallist has asked how long it would take to make 1000 of the fever finders. The availability of thermal sensors appears to be the choke point, Ryan says, but if he’s buying in bulk he reckons he might be able to get that number in June. What he actually orders will depend on demand.

“We can potentially have quite a sophisticated system that helps us both get good outcomes, by keeping Covid at bay, and enable us to carry on with an economy that is going.” – Grant Ryan

Grant Ryan imagines what it will be like when Kiwis are able to move around freely again.

He notes many countries are heading down the path of using phone apps to warn people they’ve been near confirmed Covid-19 cases. For privacy reasons, he favours a separate device, like a stand-alone Bluetooth card.

“You don’t have to have one, but if you want to go to work you may have to have one. If you want to go to a café you may have to have one. That may be one of the trade-offs we have to have if we want to keep Covid at bay.

“If you do that you can potentially link it to these thermal cameras, so as soon as someone’s notified as having a fever, it can notify the contacts, and then they get a test, and when test results come through you can elevate what you do.

“We can potentially have quite a sophisticated system that helps us both get good outcomes, by keeping Covid at bay, and enable us to carry on with an economy that is going.”

Even if Covid-19 is eradicated, which is the Government’s goal, Ryan says some companies, such as big firms with hundreds of staff, may choose to keep the temperature-checking system.

“If you catch a few people with flu every year and stop them from spreading it around, it’ll pay for itself.”

Not only that, it might just help to develop a high-tech way to kill the critters that eat our native birds.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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