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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.

New direction

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."

At work

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."


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