Austin-based Athena Security launched a fever-detection system on March 18th, a few weeks after the new coronavirus swept into the U.S., and there has been a hectic buzz at the company ever since. Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Chris Ciabarra says the company is in negotiations for tens of thousands of orders.
According to Ciabarra, one of the potential orders is for 70,000 units. The Air Force has placed an order. The Navy and Army are in discussion with the company. Foreign governments are interested.
"The phone is ringing off the hook," he says "The orders are coming from all over the world—companies, hospitals, cities, countries."
Athena's thermal imaging system is designed to detect possible COVID-19 cases before the individuals enter a building and potentially spread the coronavirus. The system can screen up to 1,000 people per hour.
The company says that as individuals look at the camera from five feet away, artificial intelligence instructs sensors to focus on the hottest part of a person's face. This will usually be the inner eye. If the person is wearing glasses, the system will go to the forehead. The system is able to ignore non-facial heat sources such as lights, cell phones and hot drinks.
The customer running the system can choose the body temperature at which an alert is issued. The user can choose to receive these alerts through a web app or a mobile app, or to have them sent through existing security platforms and video management systems.
There have been thermal cameras used in the past, especially during the SARS and swine flu outbreaks. Similar systems are still in use today. Ciabarra says they are less accurate, because instead of using artificial intelligence to pinpoint the hottest spot on an individual's face, they simply pick up the hottest object within their field of vision.
He also says the other systems require someone to be looking at the camera feed to detect elevated temperatures, whereas the alert element of the Athena system means that no one needs to be monitoring the feed. The Athena system runs a visual camera along with the infrared thermal camera, so that an image of the person with a fever can be sent along with the thermal alert.
Athena recommends confirming high temperature readings with the use of a medical thermometer. Ciabarra also says Athena is hoping to partner with a company that is moving towards the launch of a coronavirus test that could be done on site and provide results in 45 minutes.
Before it developed this system to fight the spread of a potentially deadly virus, Athena was focused on stopping another killer. The company makes a gun detection system that is sold to malls, restaurants, schools and religious organizations.
Ciabarra and Athena co-founder Lisa Falzone developed the weapons-detection idea after they left Revel Systems, the iPad-based point of sale business they had founded."We were watching TV, saw all the school shootings, and thought, 'Let's fix that,'" says Ciabarra.
The founders decided to move to Austin to create their new business, because the city had a strong technology community that was growing and would allow them to hire good employees. Athena now has about 30 employees, and Ciabarra says the city was a good choice.
The company developed a camera system that, according to the company website, can recognize 300 firearms, as well as "motions that are commonly used to commit a crime." With the help of thermal imaging, it can detect the firearms even if they are concealed.
About two months ago, as the COVID-19 threat grew, the company began adapting its detection system to the new challenge. Ciabarra says it was very easy to do.
Athena gets its camera hardware from third parties and develops the software to run the detection systems. At present, it uses two camera vendors. Interest in the new systems is so strong that Ciabarra expects to end up with five or six camera suppliers to keep up with demand.
The hardware requirements of the weapon-detection system and the fever-detection system are similar, though not identical. It is the artificial intelligence and other software that is more strongly specific to the system and needed to be developed.
In addition to the fever-detection product it has just launched, Athena is working on two modifications. One is a system that it says will be able to assess multiple people at the same time. Ciabarra hopes to have this variation ready in a month.
The company is also working on creating a less expensive package. The current product costs $8,900 for the first year, and $1,200 for each following year. The goal is to make a system that would cost about $2,000. Ciabarra expects this version to be available within 30 days.
The less costly system would not automatically scan people as they walk past, but rather the individual would have to walk up to the system and push a button. The results would be slightly less accurate than those produced by the current product. Athena says the current system is accurate to within 0.4 degrees Celsius. That margin of error is expected to increase to somewhere between 0.5 degrees Celsius and 1 degree Celsius in the less expensive version.
The systems involve surveillance, and this can raise concerns. Ciabarra points out that the fever-detection systems do not do facial recognition. Instead, they do facial detection.
"We don't look at who a person is," he says, "we just detect where the face is."
Back in 2010, at the birth of Revel Systems, Michael Lappert was Ciabarra's very first customer. Lappert makes ice cream, as his father did before him, and he has 18 ice cream shops as well as several restaurants.
At the moment, Lappert is installing an Athena fever detection system in Lappert's Ice Cream in downtown Sausalito, just across the Golden Gate bridge from San Francisco. He says the shop is usually an extremely busy place. The Bay Area, however, has been under a shelter-in-place order since March 16th. Because the shop serves take-out food, it is allowed to remain open. Things are much quieter, but Lappert says the shop still plays an important role in the community.
"There are a lot of parents with young kids, and no school, and no place to go, so for them it is a happy thing to do," he says.
He points out that he is "hemorrhaging money," but the buildings that house his businesses are paid off and he is not carrying debt, so he will make it through. The customers who do still come in help keep his employees fed, and he believes that once the measures are lifted, the crowds will return.
When this happens, he wants them to feel comfortable."We just wanted to give them a safe feeling that whoever comes in here, we can at least do a diagnosis of sorts, which is to check for an elevated temperature," he says.
He views the system in his store as partly addressing public perception, but he also thinks it is doing a service. He notes that he will have to figure out how to handle it when someone is found to have a fever.
Many of Athena's detection systems will be installed in hospitals and government agencies, where strict protocols will be in place regarding the reaction to an individual with a fever. At the ice cream shop, in the heart of an idyllic seaside community, Lappert plans to take a different approach.
"I think I would say, 'Hi. Excuse me. This thing is showing that you have an elevated temperature, and maybe you should consider going home," Lappert says. Then he decides he would probably add, "'And by the way, here is a coupon for a free ice cream for the next time you come in.'"At present, as he lets in two people at a time and keeps them six feet apart, the scanning will begin. It will continue as measures become less strict, and Lappert sees it becoming a permanent fixture in the shop. He may also install the system in his other high-volume businesses.
"It's even good for the flu in general," he says. "Every flu comes with a fever, and everyone who has the flu should not be out in public. I think you will see more and more of that kind of biometric screening."
It may not come as a surprise that dating app use surged during the pandemic when many had to swap the benefits of in-person dating for on-screen connections. Bumble revenue swelled to $337.2 million in 2020 compared to $275.5 million, Hinge revenue tripled in the same period and Tinder users broke two records from January to March of 2021.
What may be more intriguing, however, is that many apps anticipate more growth into 2022. Hinge expects to double its revenue by the end of 2021, while Tinder has announced several new features to meet new demands in time for what some are calling a "third surge" of COVID-19.
Vaccinated Austinites who had been eager for "Shot Girl Summer"—a season of in-person dating, going out and making up for time lost—may have to get back on the apps, at least partially, as cases rise higher than they've been since February and mask recommendations reenter the picture.
Austin-area resident Chloe Mohr, a 22-year-old recent college graduate, had sometimes used Tinder before the pandemic. While the app wasn't a supplemental replacement for deeper connections during stay-at-home orders, it did help her stay in the dating game and continue meeting new people.
"Using dating apps during the pandemic was easy when wanting something casual or entertaining," Mohr, who now works in marketing, said.
Chloe Mohr turned to Tinder more during the pandemic to stay connected to people. (Chloe Mohr)
Sixty percent of members came to Tinder because they felt lonely and wanted to connect with people, a Tinder study revealed, and chats were 32% longer during the pandemic.
But dating during a pandemic is no walk in the park when there's fear about contracting COVID, Mohr said. She had fears at the beginning
Tinder, Bumble, Hinge and OkCupid have responded to the new dating criteria, adding vaccination badges to profiles in partnership with U.S. and British governments.
In order to meet the demand for a stricter screening process and the superficial nature of swiping, Tinder has also introduced new features that allow users to add videos to their profiles and chat with others before they've even matched.
The new add-ons could be beneficial for the app as interest continues to swell—Google searches for "dating" have hit a five-year high, according to NPR.
But the future of dating could be vastly different—and stay different—even well into the next decade.
According to a Ypulse study, 43% of dating app users said the apps made them feel less lonely in the pandemic. Even post-pandemic, 40% of Tinder users say they plan on video-chatting with their matches before they meet, and being honest, authentic and respecting boundaries have become big talk on the app in the past year.
While it's unclear how the pandemic will shape dating for good, signs show that Austin residents and those nationwide may lean on dating apps once again if social distancing returns to the norm.
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With more research done on the COVID-19 Delta variant, Austin Public Health is upping its goal of 70% vaccinated to at least 80% due to the extreme virality of the strain.
As more Delta cases are identified—up to 29 cases are confirmed in Travis County—health officials are urging the unvaccinated to get their shots to contain the spread and relieve hospitals from reaching full capacity.
Austin-Travis County surpassed the Stage 5 threshold on Friday and has reached a seven-day average of 61 hospital admissions. However, Austin health leaders have yet to make an official shift as the Delta variant calls for new guidance, APH Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said at a joint Travis County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday morning.
The new guidance has yet to be released, but Walkes said it will take into account the viral load of Delta on both unvaccinated and vaccinated people.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed the Delta variant was as contagious as chickenpox, which has a herd immunity threshold of at least 90% vaccinated.
Although 63.42% of those eligible in Travis County are fully vaccinated, breakthrough cases—where vaccinated people are contracting COVID-19—are being identified. APH has identified 1,496 breakthrough cases of the roughly 800,000 vaccinated. Most breakthrough cases are showing less severe symptoms or are asymptomatic, according to APH.
Health officials are still asking residents to wear masks, although the city cannot mandate any masking orders due to an executive order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
"Our challenge is going to be whether we're going to stand as a community and everyone who can get vaccinated, get vaccinated, and everyone wear a mask—that's what it's going to take," Walkes said.
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Save Austin Now police petition will reach November ballot after county clerk certifies 25,000 signatures
Save Austin Now is now 2-0 over Austin City Council after its petition to add more staffed police officers to the Austin Police Department was certified, garnering over the 20,000 votes needed to make it on an election ballot.
The petition calls for more police staffing per city resident, quicker response times and more training for city police officers in the wake of increasing violent crime rates nationwide and a year of limited APD staffing. The City Council will now decide whether to implement the ordinance outright or add it to the November election ballot; it will likely do the latter.
Over 25,000 of the 27,778 signatures racked up by the public safety petition were certified as valid, well over the 20,000-vote threshold required to be certified with the City Clerk. City Clerk Jannette Goodall placed the city's seal of approval on the petition on Tuesday morning.
The petition, by the same political group that got the camping ban reinstated through a petition in May, seeks to:
- Require minimum staffing of two officers per 1,000 residents
- Require a minimum standard of 35% community response time
- Add 40 hours of training
- Require city council members, Mayor Steve Adler and other city staff to enroll in the Citizens Police Academy
- Facilitate minority officer hiring through foreign language proficiency metrics
Austin's 160 patrol vacancies have dropped its staffing rate to 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents, according to the department. APD's response time has increased by about one minute and 50 seconds in a year.
The petition comes nearly a year after APD's budgets were slashed by city council following the summer's Black Lives Matter protests, which saw several demonstrators severely injured as millions called for justice in the police-related deaths of George Floyd and locally Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black man killed by APD officer Christopher Taylor, in April 2020.
Austin and the U.S. have experienced a widespread uptick in violent crime rates in 2021. The city has reached 49 homicides in 2021, higher than the total number of murders in all of 2020 and the 38 homicides in the city in 2019. Austin police officers have seen response times rise as the department suffers increased vacancies and fewer newcomers while cadet classes are being readjusted.
Opponents argue the ordinance would ramp up a policing budget while taking away from other departments including Fire, EMS, violence prevention, and mental health care. City Council Member Greg Casar, the Travis County Democratic Party and the Austin Justice Coalition have spoken out against the organization's latest public safety move, calling out the campaign as a "right-wing petition" that misleads those who sign.
🔥 PANTS ON FIRE: Republican-front group Save Austin Now is lying about their petition!
They say their measure is about police reform, when it's really about devastating our city budget - all for the benefit of the police union. Watch the video here ⬇️ #ATX pic.twitter.com/Z6QQSfhHfH
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) August 2, 2021
The latest battle between city council and Save Austin Now will be decided by Austin residents in the Nov. 2 election.
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