The next step
Professor Zhiqiang Chen, chairman, president and CEO of NUCTECH, gives his thoughts on aviation’s battle against COVID-19 and the new technologies and solutions that will ensure that airports are safe environments for passengers and staff.
How do you think passenger journeys and the airport security process will be impacted/changed by COVID-19?
I believe COVID-19 will leave an indelible mark on our way of life, human interaction and the way we travel, both now and in the future, changing airport journeys and security checkpoints.
We are already seeing a call for more contactless technology at airports, and I expect security checkpoints will have to be redesigned to avoid crowding and limit or reduce the need for pat-down searches. As a result, advanced screening technologies which ensure a minimum need for a secondary search, like stand-off Terahertz screening systems, automated tray return systems and remote screening could be on the rise.
The industry’s quest for contactless airport journeys started quite a while ago, but the coronavirus crisis is likely to prove the catalyst for the transition to the adoption of contactless technologies across airport terminals. Innovative technologies such as biometrics, advanced screening systems and networking facilities will make it possible.
Tell us more about testing passengers’ temperatures at airports?
As a reassuring measure for passengers, I think temperature testing could be a viable solution for the aviation community to help stop the spread of the disease. Thanks to the highly efficient R&D efforts by the industry, the temperature checks could be implemented via a touchless, standalone thermometer or by an add-on module integrated into existing scanners, like metal detector portals, full body scanners, or even access control gates. With the adaptability of the technology, fever screening is now capable of safeguarding the airport almost anytime anywhere, whether it be at the entrance of terminals, security checkpoints, or boarding gates to your flights, providing multi-layered protection for passengers and staff alike.
How do you avoid crowding at testing sites?
Crowding can be avoided, and social distancing maintained, by combining fever screening technologies with cameras Artificial Intelligence algorithms that automatically monitor passenger flows with high throughput and precision. This means that there is no need for manual processes conducted by staff with handheld equipment, which is time-consuming, labour-intensive and likely to lead to crowding and congestion at terminal entrances, which is the last thing that we want.
Is temperature testing here to stay?
I think we might accept it as part of the new normal beyond the pandemic, because COVID-19 has raised people’s awareness and concerns over the dangers of cross-infection. With no quick end in sight yet, it would be here for a while.
As an industry, we need to restore people’s confidence in aviation and boost their desire to fly again, and one of the ways of doing this is knowing that you won’t be boarding a flight with someone whose health status is totally unknown.
The onus is on airports and airlines to allay people’s concerns, if not to fully eradicate them, and in this regard, health checks offer a highly visible solution that can change people’s sentiments and restore their confidence to travel.
The momentum for temperature checks at airports is growing. US airlines, for instance, are in discussion with the TSA about the adoption of such measures and we are expecting new protocols to be introduced in the near future. Elsewhere, airports in Australia, the UK and India are also trialling ‘fever screening systems’ to promote their safety posture. NUCTECH fully supports these efforts and looks forward to helping airports, airlines and the relevant authorities introduce them into the field.
Can you tell us more about NUCTECH’s solutions?
NUCTECH is committed to helping global airports to combat the pandemic with our innovations.
Disinfection measures, like automatic sanitisation of baggage or UV light disinfection are incorporated with our next generation security solution.
Temperature testing by thermometer has been introduced into our security screening portfolio. Incorporating with existing scanners, the combo solution provides a one-stop comprehensive checking to detect, not only the illicit items, but also the health risks.
As a cost-effective and high throughput module, it has great potential to be widely employed at various sites around the airport to restore passengers’ confidence to continue their journey.
Take our newly upgraded Terahertz body scanner, for example, we have integrated a proprietary thermal imaging camera into the body screening system to launch a fast, efficient, one-stop solution for real-time people screening.
Our temperature checking module is more than just a simple add-on to the existing Terahertz scanner. Equipped with deep learning algorithms, the integrated solution can adapt quickly to different settings, minimise background distractions and detect people’s body temperatures. Indeed, comprehensive data integration enables our equipment to obtain a unique temperature assessment on the whole body rather than just the face/forehead. This makes it more accurate and harder to trick, as during the pandemic we have seen cases when passengers have used cold objects to cool themselves down in a bid to pass temperature tests. These are the sort of tricks that could make traditional thermometers useless.
As a stand-off solution, it allows for real time people screening with a throughput of more than 2,000 passengers per hour, which can eliminate the bottlenecks associated with handheld thermometer temperature checking.
With no line-up or checkpoint needed, the health check will not give rise to further congregation or unnecessary human interaction. Passengers with suspicious body temperatures would be alerted to the field officer for further intervention.
Will quarantine rooms also become a familiar sight at airports?
We envisage that some kind of quarantine arrangement will become more commonplace at airports as they will need a place to physically separate those in need of further help and care from the crowded public sites. However, it is for individual airports to decide which kind of solution would better suit their specific requirements.
We offer a cost-effective, relocatable and highly compact quarantine room solution, which we believe can minimise the risk of cross-infection in a viable way. It is a practical solution derived from our close collaboration with frontline customers and something our technical staff transformed from an idea to reality within weeks. It can be folded and set-up within minutes and has been deployed in some of the Chinese airports to help frontline staff protect the public whilst better guarding their own safety.
How important is it for governments and all industry partners to work together to find global solutions to COVID-19?
I believe it is crucial as co-ordination could facilitate the adoption of the processes, procedures and technologies needed for airports to confront and overcome COVID-19. Against the shadow of the virus, passenger expectations for airport security checks will no longer be the same as it was months ago. Everybody is talking about going back to normal, however, we have to admit the coming new normal might be totally different. In this transition, we need to go hand in hand, share the frontline concerns, explore new enabling technologies, and collaborate with all parties to deliver the changes that are needed for the new post COVID-19 era.