See Fever Screening Systems Everywhere? They Were Invented by Singapore.

The city of Wuhan, has been almost completely deserted. The streets are empty as the lockdown reaches its first month. However, one factory continues to work round the clock as many others remain shut. 2,600 employees in Wuhan Guide Infrared Co. have been fulfilling a surge of orders for fever detection systems to help contain the epidemic.

Even one of the company’s biggest customers, the Chinese military, has to wait. The company halted the production of night vision scopes and other products to produce more fever detection systems that range from $5,000 to $30,000. Within a month, their company’s shares have surged 85.9%.

With the heightened health and safety measures in place due to COVID-19, more and more infrared fever screening systems can be found all over the world. They are strategically placed at the entrances and exits of shopping malls, offices, and airports, to list a few. However, these sensors that we take for granted now were previously uncommon. In fact, they only came into existence because of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Singapore.

Singapore created the world’s first infrared-based mass temperature screening system. In other words, there is no need for you to stick a thermometer in your mouth or ear, or have your temperature individually measured by a contactless thermometer because of the technology that Singapore developed back in 2003. 

The problem

On 1 March 2003, Patient No. 1 was admitted to Tan Tock Seng Hospital for a suspected case of pneumonia. This illness will later be coined as SARS two weeks later.

By 24 March 2003, the Infectious Diseases Act was invoked. Around 740 people were home-quarantined for 10 days. The next day, Singapore experienced its first SARS death – Patient No. 1’s father.

The SARS pandemic in Singapore rendered the need for detection crucial. An easy way of identifying SARS patients is to look at their body temperature. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Communicable Disease Centre (CDC), a suspect case can be defined as a person whose body temperature is over 38 degrees Celsius.

Thermometers became the most accurate in measuring temperature. However, they were ineffective when managing large groups of people. Immigration checkpoints would be inconveniently flooded, and entry to office buildings during peak hours would be severely slowed.

This posed a problem not just to Singapore, but the world. Everybody’s day to day life will be affected should temperature screening be done by person.

The solution

On 3 April 2003, Ministry of Health (MOH) approached Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) to devise alternative solutions. DSTA studied and employed the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)’s military thermal imager while working closely with MOH and Singapore Technologies (ST) Electronics. A prototype was produced within a week.

And thus, the ST Electronics Infrared Fever Screening System (IFSS) was created.

Being radiation-free, the IFSS was suitable for children and pregnant women. This automated system was easy to use, and personnel with little to no training were able to identify SARS suspects just from monitoring the screen from afar in real-time. They simply had to look at the color-coded thermograph of each passer-by.
Red means hot, and green means not. (source)

Since the device is sensitive to heat instead of light, it can even work in the dark. This set up also reduced the risk of nurses and officers being in close contact to a SARS suspect given that they no longer need to use a thermometer to screen each person individually. Traffic flow was also eased.

Flooding orders

The IFSS was later pushed out to other countries. Dozens were sold for use in airports, hospitals, hotels and other public spaces throughout Asia. Manufacturers of thermal imaging devices also saw an uptick in orders, saying that “the phone hasn’t stopped ringing”.

Even after SARS was over, many airports continued using these sensors. This led TIME magazine to call the IFSS ‘one of the best inventions of 2003’.

Fever screening today

A thermographic monitor (source)

Today, amidst COVID-19, a new temperature screening equipment that employs artificial intelligence (AI) to spot febrile individuals is currently being piloted to reduce the need for a manual process.

The real-time screening device, known as iThermo, is an innovation by Singapore. It uses a smartphone fitted with thermal and 3D laser cameras to detect the forehead temperature of individuals walking by, even if they are wearing spectacles, surgical masks or headgear. The device, which can measure temperature up to a distance of 3m away, will generate an alert when someone with a fever walks by it, prompting staff to carry out secondary checks. Like the Infrared Fever Screening System, it too was created in a short period of time (2 weeks), in response to a pandemic. 

It is always heartening to see Singaporean society mobilise to fight a common foe — especially so if the results lead to the enrichment of lives all around the world.


Vanessa Ng


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