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ASU to Fight COVID-19 Spread with Thermal Imaging Tech

Alabama State University is implementing thermal screening technology that can detect some symptoms of COVID-19. The technology will be utilized in “high traffic” areas across the campus.

by Safiya Charles, Montgomery Advertiser / September 2, 2020
ASU President Quinton Ross tests a new temperature checking technology at the Hardy Student Center on Alabama State University campus in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. TNS

(TNS) — When visitors entered Alabama State University’s John Garrick Hardy Student Center on Tuesday morning, they were asked to do the opposite of what most every public health official has recommended since spring: Remove their masks. For a moment, at least.  

That’s because Draganfly, a smart thermal temperature assessment device that screens for COVID-19 symptoms, reads biomarkers such as temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate by quickly scanning the image of a person’s face.  

The smart device is contactless, reads temperatures in about 30 seconds and requires only that individuals remove all face coverings, including glasses. No data is collected, and images are not stored. ASU is the first educational facility in the state to unveil the new technology.  

As students have returned to their dormitories and campuses, coronavirus cases have spiked at schools across the country. The University of Alabama made headlines recently after a sharp rise in cases attributed to students attending crowded parties and ignoring social distancing measures led the mayor of Tuscaloosa to shut down its bars for two weeks.  

ASU administrators say that right now their campus is COVID-free, and they’d like it to stay that way.  

“We require everyone on campus to be tested, and that’s students, faculty and staff,” said ASU President Quinton Ross. “All of these protocols that we have in place help with our awareness. As we use these technologies and get these various statistics it helps us decide our next move.” 

The technology will be utilized in “high traffic” areas across campus like the Hardy Student Center where the first station was unveiled. Ross said that administrators were still in talks about what locations to prioritize and could imagine possibly installing one at Hornet Stadium once the delayed football season kicks off.  

ASU has purchased five Vital Intelligence Smart Thermal Assessment Stations as well as five Social Distance Awareness Units, equipped with displays that show whether individuals are spaced six feet apart by highlighting their movements. As people shift on screen a circular pod beneath their feet alternates between green when there’s adequate physical distance and red when there’s not.  

Ross said each machine cost roughly $20,000, calling it a wise investment of CARES Act funding that schools across the country received this spring.

Although masks are mandatory on ASU’s campus, the university is hoping the assessment machines will add an extra layer of protection to assist health staff as well as students and faculty, by providing an easy and convenient way to identify people who may need to get tested or treated for COVID-19.  

“The vast majority of the high-risk population of the state of Alabama ... [is] the African American community. Alabama State is about 91% African American. There’s a lot of high-risk students on this campus and around this community,” said Senator Bobby Singleton (D-24).  

Singleton worked with two of his legislative colleagues as well as Ross and key stakeholders to facilitate the deal. He said some Alabama schools were reticent to adopt the new technology; noting that a solution was needed to get students back to school and that Draganfly provided a safe way to get the process started.  

The technology used to create the assessment station was developed through a partnership between researchers at the University of South Australia and the Australian Department of Defense. However, it is FDA approved. Draganfly uses a combination of computer vision, artificial intelligence and high-resolution cameras to monitor people’s vital signs.  

While scientific research supports the use of thermal imaging systems, they aren’t standalones. ASU students, staff and faculty who are flagged for elevated temperatures or other vital signs will be directed to the campus health center for additional evaluation and testing.  

©2020 the Montgomery Advertiser, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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