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Updated: This AI camera detects people who may have COVID-19

Austin-based Athena Security first gained recognition using AI to detect firearms. It’s now tackling another public health threat.

Updated: This AI camera detects people who may have COVID-19
[Photo: Nicholas Green/Unsplash]
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UPDATE: The video surveillance research and testing firm IPVM reports, convincingly, that Athena Security faked some of the marketing content used to promote the fever detection technology described in the story below. IPVM showed that instead of using images of its own product, Athena lifted at least one image of a thermal camera system from the internet, doctoring it to depict a fever detection system. Athena also manufactured one of the customer testimonials used at its site, IPVM confirmed. Athena says the misrepresentations are the work of a third-party web marketing company that it has now fired. Still, as IPVM points out, it’s odd that Athena employees wouldn’t have noticed the dodgy content at their own company website.

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IPVM also points out that it’s unusual for a surveillance tech company to be selling high-end thermal cameras and software via an e-commerce site with a “shopping cart,” which Athena continues to do. Athena CEO Lisa Falzone told Fast Company they took that approach so that customers wouldn’t have to wait for weeks to get the technology. IPVM demonstrated that the price of Athena’s “Coronavirus Detection System” shown on the website has risen from $3,900 as of March 17 to $8,900 on March 23. Athena CTO Chris Ciabarra says the price of the software-hardware solution can fluctuate with the prices and availability of the thermal cameras used.

With the U.S. lagging other countries in the distribution of coronavirus testing kits, health authorities have had to look to other means of detection, like the infrared ear thermometers used in some countries. And now one Austin-based company says its security cameras use thermal imaging and computer vision tech to detect people who have fever possibly related to the virus.

Unlike the thermometers, which work one person at a time and at close range, Athena Security‘s security camera detection system may be far better for scanning larger numbers of people in places like airports, grocery stores, hospitals, and voting locations.

The company’s thermal cameras are already in use at a coworking space in Austin, and will be deployed in some “large Fortune 500 companies” and some airports in the coming weeks, but Athena says it can’t divulge the names of those customers yet.

The cameras can detect the heat of 12 different places on the body with an accuracy of within a ½ degree, says Athena CEO Lisa Falzone. The company’s software, which works with high-grade, off-the-shelf security cameras, uses an AI model to zoom in on a subject’s inner eye, which is most reflective of the body’s actual temperature, she said.

The system uses AI to monitor numerous cameras at once, and automatically sends an alert to security personnel if it detects someone with a fever. It can do 1,000 temperature readings an hour, Falzone said. This is far faster than the current system being used in airports–the handheld temp readers–which have snarled lines at airports like Chicago’s O’Hare.

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Athena originally made news in 2018 when it developed a security software to address another huge public safety issue–gun violence. The company introduced security camera technology that used computer vision to detect firearms as public fear over mass shootings hit a fever pitch. The gun detection system uses computer vision to detect firearm shapes within its view. If the firearm is concealed, the system must also compare the heat of a suspected weapon with the body surface near it, said Athena’s CTO Chris Ciabarra at the time.

When the novel coronavirus began to spread in China, Athena realized that it could use much of the same technology it developed for gun detection to detect people who might have contracted the virus. Falzone said detecting fever is actually easier than detecting guns because nothing is concealed.

The U.S. Air Force was already using Athena’s technology to detect guns within its bases and other facilities, Falzone said, but it’s now using the fever detection functionality as well.

“We see this more for places like airports, hospitals, military bases–places where you can’t go in if you have a fever because you may spread it to others,” she said.

Athena stresses that its system doesn’t record the faces of everybody who passes in front of the camera. The thermal camera doesn’t pick up on skin color. But it does record an image of the face of anyone who registers a fever. “We don’t like the word ‘surveillance,'” says Falzone.

Athena is encouraging its corporate customers to be upfront with employees that the temperature detection feature is being deployed. It’s advising its retail customers to post signs at the entrance stating that people with fever aren’t allowed in the store, and that a camera is being used to detect fever in people outside the door.

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The U.S. government has reached out to the tech community for help in addressing the coronavirus outbreak. Some have speculated that Big Tech might redeem itself in the public’s eyes by lending its brain power and infrastructure to the coronavirus response.

We’ll have to see how that goes. But Athena Security, a small tech company located far from Silicon Valley, has quickly brought to market a cutting-edge technology that could play a crucial role in slowing the spread of the virus. Let’s hope we see more examples of that from tech companies big and small in the coming weeks and months.

About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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