Thermal imaging ingenuity

Auckland Bioengineering Institute is helping a group of engineers reengineer one of their creations to help in the battle against covid-19.

Over the past three years, The Cacophony Project have been developing a low-cost thermal imaging camera to help monitor predators hunting our native birds.

After covid-19 hit, they realized the cameras could be modified to detect people with a fever – which is one of the most common symptoms of the virus.

The cameras could be used at airports, hospitals, supermarkets and other workplaces to help control the spread of covid-19.

Researchers from Auckland Bioengineering Institute, the University of Canterbury and Callaghan Innovation are assisting with testing, calibration and writing for the instruction manual.

Shaun Ryan’s company 2040 Limited has been manufacturing the thermal cameras.

“To begin with, I dismissed the idea, initially because there are already commercial devices out there that do that,” Shaun says. “However these devices are expensive and in hot demand at the moment.”

Compared to other devices, their thermal cameras are relatively low cost. They are also fast and work without needing any close contact with the person being screened.

The scan results can be shown on the screen of any WiFi connected device. It shows the detected body temperature, with a simple green background for normal and red for elevated. Another great feature is that the cameras can be updated remotely. They are also waterproof, which means they can be washed with soapy water.

All of this has been thrown together just in the past couple of weeks.

“The weekend before last the engineer who originally had the idea to use our technology to help against covid-19 built a prototype that looked really impressive. We started showing it to people and started getting momentum,” says Shaun.

Their current focus in on ramping up production of the thermal cameras, working with suppliers and manufacturing partners, hoping to stay ahead of demand.

Shaun and his brother Grant have many inventions and companies to their name. These include SLI Systems, a web search engine company; PurePods, an eco-friendly version of visitor accommodation; and YikeBike, a lightweight folding electric bicycle. In 2014 they were recognised as the 2014 New Zealand Engineering Entrepreneurs of the Year. Their father, Jim Ryan, was also an inventor in the agricultural field.

Shaun says in the initial brainstorming session for how they could help, that there were a few ideas that ultimately didn’t make the cut.

“One idea was to use our bird monitoring and recognition infrastructure to automatically recognise coughs associated with the disease. Rather than call it a Cacophonometer they wanted to call it a Coughcoughometer – another reason why you don’t let engineers name things!”