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Integrating thermal imaging technology to help restore air passenger confidence

Author: Andy Clarke, Aviation director at Costain

Thermal imaging technology will play an important role in the aviation sector’s strategy to minimise risk, keep staff and passengers safe and increase public confidence in flying following the Covid-19 pandemic. Several airports have already announced their use and Costain is right at the heart of this development, helping to drive the role of digital technology and innovation in supporting UK recovery and productivity.

Recently, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) suggested a layered approach to biosecurity for re-starting passenger flights, with one of the measures being the use of body temperature screening by trained government staff at departure and arrival airports. Costain is already working with several aviation companies on camera implementation and ensuring they understand the full potential of thermal imaging technology once it is integrated into their systems. We’ve recently announced that we’re working with Swissport on a three week trial of thermal camera technology for a major European airline at Birmingham International Airport (BHX).

The cameras work by detecting temperature through the capture of different levels of infrared light, which is invisible to the naked eye. The systems then use artificial intelligence to pick out the areas of the face that give the best indication of a person’s core body temperature. At a basic level, cameras are used as standalone units, wired to alarms with staff briefed on how to handle people with elevated readings. This basic utilisation of cameras alone, does not fully embrace the potential and power of this technology, which can only be realised through a multi-layered operational strategy. The much bigger focus must be on how the cameras can be integrated into broader airport and airline operations and, also, governmental systems. Deeper integration could minimise disruption to airports, airlines and their passengers, ease the flow of people through an airport and provide a highly effective layer of security against infectious diseases.

At a societal level airlines and airports are part of government efforts to stem the tide of Covid-19 and, in future, reduce the risk of the spread of other infectious diseases. But not everyone with Covid-19 has a temperature and not everyone with a temperature has Covid-19. Therefore, a layered ‘Swiss Cheese model’, approach is required. The model likens human systems to multiple slices of swiss cheese, stacked side by side, in which the risk of a threat becoming a reality is mitigated by different types of defenses which are "layered" behind each other, as holes in the cheese disappear as you stack more slices together. Therefore, in theory, weaknesses in one defense are mitigated by other defenses in other layers. The more layers of security that are added, in a simplified and integrated system, the less risk presented to passengers.

One of the major challenges for organisations using thermal imaging, and knitting data into an integrated system, is human behaviour and the inconsistencies it may present. While cabin crew may be happy with the extra security provided by the cameras, someone feeling unwell who is desperate to get home may do anything to subvert the system. They may attempt to trick cameras by washing in cold water or taking paracetamol before boarding, for example. So whilst thermal imaging provides a layer of protection, it’s clear it’s not the entire answer and there needs to be further layers of detection and security introduced to ensure risk is minimised.

Once temperature data is gathered from the cameras it will need linking to individual passengers, to a possible secondary test, their reservations, hold baggage, seat assignments and positioning. If regulations start to require that not only do airlines need to declare a generic Covid-19-free status for a flight, but also specific temperature data related to individual passengers, things will become much more complex. Data will need attaching to a passport or photo image. If you do this where people are presenting boarding cards, how will airlines handle those people identified as having raised temperatures? Will there be a further test to confirm it’s safe to make a return journey? This all needs very careful consideration given public attitudes to privacy and liberty and data law, both in the UK and overseas.

There is also the issue of trust between national agencies and airlines. The seamless flow of data between different company and national systems will become key to stemming the spread of disease, but this is a huge challenge. How will shared data be used and how can the integrity of data be maintained? Without an international standard this could be very difficult. The precise point at which cameras are used, be it preboarding or embarkation, and the speed at which that data can be acted upon needs to be agreed and indeed aligned across countries.

Airports already recognise the huge complexity of the need to reassure staff and passengers and are accepting that integrated thermal imaging systems are going to be around for the long haul. Effective integration strategy now, in the short term, will mean better utilisation in the future.

These challenges are complex but the rewards for successful integration, such as greater safety and a more seamless passenger experience through airports are worth attaining for the long term. We believe it’s only a matter of time before airports become entirely contactless. Biometric boarding, using facial recognition, fingerprints, and iris scanning is already present in many, allowing for better security and a faster transit period for passengers. The successful integration of thermal imaging cameras will almost certainly be a part of this process.

Costain supports clients by providing one or a few cameras for critical locations as well as providing a management system for multiple cameras which can be evolved into control room technology for managing large areas and fully integrated into airport and airline systems.

If you need support with integrating thermal imaging solutions contact [email protected]