Kiwi scientists are developing mass temperature-testing tech that could prove vital in New Zealand's ongoing fight against Covid-19.
Two teams of researchers have been awarded more than $1m from a new $25m Government fund for innovations targeted at the coronavirus.
One of the groups is taking low-cost, smart thermal camera systems designed for tracking predators threatening our native birds and repurposing it to monitor crowds from a safe distance.
The Cocophany Project, bringing together specialists from the University of Canterbury, the Auckland Bioengineering Institute and Callaghan Innovation, aims to create a device that can measure forehead temperature to within half a degree – and all without a person having to operate it.
Canterbury mechanical engineers Julian Phillips, lecturer Tim Giffney and Professor Mark Jermy have developed a temperature reference to give a constant check calibration of the devices, which are now under trial and are hoped to be rolled out shortly.
"If thermal imaging cameras are deployed for temperature screening, this stable temperature reference can help with accuracy," Giffney said.
"We hope this stable in-frame temperature reference could be useful as a simple, rapidly deliverable approach."
Phillips explained that, by putting a stable temperature source in view of the camera, the system could continuously check its reading, and make adjustments.
"The main challenge in developing the reference was coming up with a design that could be rapidly built with minimal resources, and from local supplies as international freight is at an almost complete standstill," he said.
"Fortunately I have quite a well-equipped workshop at home, needing only a few items to be obtained from UC."
About 30 soldiers from Burnham, as well as police officers, have been used to test and calibrate the cameras, which could be deployed at airports, hospitals and supermarkets around the country.
A separate project, led by University of Auckland's Associate Professor Nick Gant, is working toward a matchbox-sized body sensor that can be worn under the arm to monitor whether someone has a fever.
The temperature-reading device, dubbed "Nightingale", is designed to protect those most at risk and avoid cluster outbreaks of Covid-19 in places like rest homes.
Gant said the tech could also drastically cut the need for physical contact between frontline medical staff and patients such as rest home residents.
"It's about saving resources, safety, and getting really high visibility on the disease by knowing where the cases are and what's happening as quickly as possible," he said.
Invented by a group of Auckland tech entrepreneurs under lockdown who realised they had the perfect mix of technological expertise, Nightingale uses little power and can send a signal across many kilometres.
"The solution can rapidly signal new outbreaks of Covid-19 in near real-time," device designer Neal Radford said.
"While other temperature measuring devices do exist, they don't provide the kind of continuous mass monitoring at a distance that this one does so it's really a world-first."
While the armpit was not the ideal site to measure body temperature, Nightingale was a smart device that used data from a motion sensor to screen out erroneous readings, only sending small amounts of accurate data to a web-based interface for remote monitoring by nursing or health care staff.
The team said it could also be used to check on self-isolated people at home or in quarantine, or those in small rural communities.
"Because of the relatively higher prevalence of diseases that make Māori and Pacific communities particularly vulnerable to the virus, rural Māori communities, in particular, would be better able to protect themselves with this type of monitoring," Gant said.
With intellectual property secured, and with a prototype already built, Nightingale could be rapidly deployed and the inventors have entered into a research partnership with Oceania Healthcare's aged care facilities to test it.
While carefully designed safety protocols would need to be in place, it could happen within weeks, Gant said.
The tech and science entrepreneurs formed Nightingale to operate research in partnership with the University of Auckland's Department of Exercise Science and Medical Technologies Centre of Research Excellence.
The company also got some useful testing help from local Americas Cup veteran and yacht designer Tom Schnackenberg.
Rapid testing device could check travellers
In another project just awarded funding, Kiwi company Ubiquitome is ramping up the manufacture of its Covid-19 testing device, called the Liberty16.
The company's chief executive, Paul Pickering, said the mobile device would be ideal for use in places like airports, pre-screening international travellers once borders reopen.
Passengers could be tested and would get the result before their flight, indicating whether they should travel or not.
"Covid-19 is the virus of the moment, but there will be others in the future that we'll need to protect ourselves from, so I'd see pre-flight health checks being normalised the same way more stringent security processes were normalised following 9/11," Pickering said.
"We can test and get results in under an hour with the Liberty16. We aim to show appropriate airport or border control personnel could be trained to run the device.
"The Liberty16 software interprets the data so the airport personnel just get a result that shows if the person is positive for Covid-19 or not."
The Liberty16 is a real-time PCR (polymerase chain reaction) device that connects via Bluetooth to its own proprietary iPhone App for run set-up, real-time observations and post-run data analysis
It is battery-operated and, weighing in at 2.5kg and with a footprint of just over one third of an A4 sheet of paper, it was one of the smallest real-time PCR systems on the international market.
Ubiquitome has already sold Liberty16 into research and clinical labs in Japan, US, Canada, the UK and Germany.
It's been used by the labs to amplify specific target DNA sequences, to show the presence of any DNA of interest whether that be human, animal, or wider environmental pathogens.
An earlier prototype was successfully tested for Zaire ebolavirus.