How IoT will rescue aviation

European airplane maker Airbus is one company exploring virus-spotting IoT sensors in an attempt to keep COVID-19-infected passengers off planes.

Passenger view of an airplane wing above the clouds. / travel / journey / transportation
Stéphan Valentin (CC0)

A biotech company that develops sensors to detect explosives and other chemicals on planes and in airports is teaming up with Airbus to create a sensor that could detect passengers who are positive for COVID-19.

California-based Koniku and Airbus, which have been working since 2017 on contactless equipment that sniffs out chemicals, are trying to adapt that technology to sniff out pathogens, says Osh Agabi, founder and CEO of Koniku, in a blog post.

They hope to identify odors in breath or sweat that are chemical markers indicating the presence of COVID-19 infection. "Most infections and diseases cause slight changes to the composition of our breath and sweat, which then produce distinct odors," Agabi writes. "If we can detect those odors, we can detect the presence of those infections."

The companies hope to identify markers specific to the novel coronavirus and an IOT sensor equipped with genetically engineered odoroant receptors that can detect them. "Those receptors screen molecules in the air and produce a signal when they come into contact with the molecular compounds of the hazard or threat that they have been programmed to detect," he writes.

He says that passengers would be screened by walking through an enclosed corridor where the sensors are deployed. "By programming the DNA of the cells that make up these receptors to react to the compounds that appear in infected people’s breath or sweat, we believe we will be able to quickly and reliably screen for COVID-19 and determine whether a person is infected," he writes.

Other types of contactless detectors are already in use, including elevated-skin-temperature (EST) cameras.

Italy's main airport, Leonardo da Vinci, acquired three thermal-imaging helmets with the intent to use them to spot persons with fevers. The airport already had fixed thermal scanners and has ordered more. Passengers detected with potentially high temperatures are made to take a further medical exam, according to regional publication Fiumicino Online.

KC Wearable, the Shenzhen, China, company that makes the helmets, says they can be worn by staff and used at a distance from passengers.

FLIR Systems, which makes thermal cameras, says there’s been increased demand for them to be used in EST screening, the company says in this month in its financial results.

"Although these thermal cameras cannot detect or diagnose any type of medical condition, the cameras do serve as an effective tool to identify elevated skin temperatures," it says.

"Many companies are looking to install this technology in their facilities in anticipation of lifting the shelter-in-place orders," FLIR CEO Jim Cannon said in an earnings call this month. General Motors is one of them, according to Reuters.

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