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Department Uses Thermal Imaging to Detect COVID-19

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The Defense Department has used thermal imaging in myriad ways over the decades. Now, it's being enlisted to detect COVID-19.

Thermal imaging uses heat signatures to form an image or video based on differences of temperature. 

As part of the COVID-19 response, three Army programs — the Army Rapid Equipping Force, Program Executive Office Soldier and the C5ISR Center of U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command — led the initiative to use thermal imaging devices to screen for elevated body temperatures among personnel entering military facilities.

A soldier sits facing a camera, which is pointed at a man, standing, in civilian clothing about six feet away.
Thermal Image
Soldiers participating in Program Executive Office Soldier at Fort Belvoir, Va., test thermal imaging, in the spring of 2020.
Photo By: Air Force Airman 1st Class Scott Warner
VIRIN: 200422-O-ZZ999-001C

These stand-off thermal imaging capabilities provide significant advantages over hand-held thermometers because there's a safe distance between the operators and subjects and they require less manpower. The technology, which does not require physical contact, processes information quickly. The result is a faster flow of traffic into buildings and facilities. Screening only takes a few seconds. Temperatures can be measured at a distance of 6 to 8 feet and uses an infrared sensor mounted on a tripod.

Thermal imaging has proven itself in other applications, as well. DOD firefighters employ thermal imaging cameras, which can see through smoke, to detect fire hot spots so they know where to aim water or foam. The cameras also help firefighters see what areas to avoid as they navigate through zero visibility conditions caused by smoke. The cameras also can locate people who are trapped in a fire.

A thermal image shows a house fire.
Thermal Fire
During training, a firefighter with the 96th Civil Engineer Squadron fire department uses a thermal imaging camera to see through smoke, enabling him to pinpoint hot spots and keep track of the crew, at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., June 21, 2007. The camera helps firefighters see where they’re going in zero visibility conditions.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Mike Meares
VIRIN: 070621-F-9708M-017C
A thermal image shows the heat signatures of aircraft components.
Thermal Image
A thermal image of a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft’s hydraulic spoiler bypass valve in the energized position is shown at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., Feb. 27, 2019. Thermal imaging cameras are used to find faulty parts based on inconsistent heat signatures.
Photo By: Air Force Airman 1st Class Scott Warner
VIRIN: 190227-F-XX111-1000C

DOD's aircraft and vehicle mechanics sometimes use thermal imaging to detect faulty mechanical or electrical parts without having to tear the engines apart. Normal operating temperatures are compared with the thermal images to determine if something is amiss.

The U.S. military and allies use the AN/PVS-14 monocular night vision device to detect people and objects that give off heat signatures in the dark. The device can also be affixed to weapons for night targeting. 

In January, Marines at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, began testing the squad binocular night vision goggle, which is said to be more capable than the AN/PVS-14, because it enhances depth perception and improves the clarity of targets in extreme darkness or battlefield obscurants. Marines can also use the goggles to operate vehicles at night, move through dark buildings or tunnels and engage targets after sunset. The goggles are now being manufactured in limited quantities for further testing.

Through a camera lens, a Marine can be seen wearing night vision goggles.
Night Vision
A Marine is seen through the squad binocular night vision coggle at Quantico, Va., Feb. 3, 2020.
Photo By: Marine Corps Sgt. Kirstin Spanu
VIRIN: 200203-M-EC414-0003C

Another way the department uses thermal imaging is to detect heat loss, structural defects, moisture and other faults in buildings.

The Coast Guard uses thermal imagery to locate smugglers or terrorists in ports and waterways. The images are high quality in all types of weather and in complete darkness.

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