F.C. Firm Hopes Its Thermal Tech Can Help Curb Spread of Covid-19

(Photo: Courtesy Ryan Shuler/Digital Design & Imaging Services)

By Katherine Liverman

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, many are heeding the call from the federal government to lend their talents in fighting the disease. For Falls Church’s Curt Westergard that means using his skills with infrared technology to check the temperatures of people from a safe distance and help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

As president of Digital Design & Imaging Services, Westergard is more likely associated with the balloons he launches to snap aerial photos of large events, such as the Women’s March or presidential inaugurations. But infrared technology has been a lesser-known part of his crowd-monitoring service, and now he wants to use those tools to detect people with fevers while they’re waiting in line.

It’s a step forward on some of the precautions the general public has already taken great care to enforce. Indoors, social distancing and masks are used in combination with constant attention to wiping down surfaces. Now, as Westergard envisions it, longer lines outside of grocery stores and medical centers could also expose people to unnecessary risk of the virus to people who are waiting. 

With nearly 26 years in the field, and 21 years of developing high-resolution infrared technology, Westergard saw the combination as “a natural mashup” that requires only slight repurposing. 

Crowd-monitoring with an infrared lens involves identifying people in disorganized masses. Combing this technology allows for the identification of a single person in-line, and the ability to see their temperature through the use of high-resolution IR cameras.

“When we saw the costly and dangerous difficulty that triage nurses worked through, standing very close to long lines of people, trying to figure out their potential for having a fever, we wondered, ‘Maybe there is a better way to capture equally good temperature data but not to be so close to the person ourselves?’ ” Westergard said. 

Westergard assures that they are very attentive and sensitive to the individual right to privacy, but its ultimate purpose is to protect people from one and other and streamline medical care.

“We don’t want to invade someone’s privacy; but in a hospital triage line, if somebody like your grandmother in a wheelchair really should be pushed to the head of the line, if she has a fever, that would be a win for her and the people nearby,” Westergard added. 

The technology measures your temperature by looking at your tear ducts, the most accurate indicator of a fever. So who is covering the costs? 

Westergard is in the process of submitting a Request for Proposal to the Department of Defense’s Small Business Innovation Research program.
If accepted, the DoD will fund the development of the technology, and Westergard would move into the secondary stage of creating a successful product. 

“The DoD is funding it for their own use, but only if there is a high probability of it being useful in the commercial sector. [The research program] wants it to be dual use, that entails doing the research and then quickly turning it around and scaling it up and applying it in very different venues — the elections, food distribution zones, supermarkets.”

What makes this product unique is not only its ability to operate outdoors, but also to quickly adjust to organic lines and their constantly changing shape.

“This is all about makeshift lines, and identifying people far away from the main entry.” 

If Westergard is able to put forward a successful prototype, the rights to the technology would be co-developed with the DoD. His firm would both have the ability to scale it up, and apply it to the commercial health and commerce markets.

Other businesses would be able to use and influence the idea, but Westergard would be able to control the direction of the product. “For example, we would probably have a strong ethical checklist for protecting privacy at the same time as being practical for identifying people with elevated temperatures.”

Westergard says there are an “unbelievable amount of other applications,” the tech can be applied to any venue where people are lined up outdoors. On a national level, this means primaries, the presidential election, food banks, sporting events and more. However, Westergard has a vision for its global application as well. 

“We’re all facing the same problem”, Westergard said, referencing the safety-issues presented by Covid-19, let alone any pandemic, are not unique to the U.S. He’s “trying to develop this thing so it is super low-tech, low cost [with a] you can do it yourself approach” so it can be applied in many communities around the world.

The timeline for the research program’s request for proposal is nearly two years, but it is clear communities are in need of help now. To facilitate the process, Westergard and his team are “gearing up in advance” and have set the milestone to have the prototype completed in six months. If they are not accepted by Small Business Innovation Research program, Westergard has his eye on a multitude of other companies and organizations that would fund the technology. 

Overall, Westergard’s mission is to contribute to the public good and streamline access to healthcare for those with the highest need. 

Two weeks in with no pay, his spirits remain high: “Life gives you lemon you make lemonade, life gives you the ability to lift sensors in the sky you check for people being hot.”