The Cacophony Project is all about the eradication of invasive predators from New Zealand. However, there's a wee thing called COVID-19 that has brought about a few problems in human society (you may have seen the odd thing about it in the news recently). At Cacophony, we love being useful so when the call came requesting that we turn our attention to how our cameras might be used, we listened and responded with our favourite type of action - we started building things. Today, we talk to our founder about how that happened and what we're doing to try to help New Zealand get through this and return to something like normal.
What follows is a transcript of an interview with Grant Ryan, the founder of the Cacophony Project.
Q: Readers will know that The Cacophony Project has developed thermal cameras for use in monitoring invasive predators. But now we hear you’ve got the cameras looking at humans? How did that come about?
We were asked early on if our technology could be adapted to help with monitoring people to identify those who might have a fever. This already happens in a number of countries overseas but has not been done in NZ at any scale. The existing specialised equipment was mostly not available in the short term due to high demand and we were asked if we could create something specifically to help COVID-19 monitoring in the New Zealand scenario.
Q: So these cameras can automatically detect a human with a fever?
Yes. The product is still in development but early testing has already given us positive results. The novel thing about our cameras is that they are network connected and are flexible, allowing for a number of different configurations. This means they can be used as an early detection network in the most high risk areas.
Early tests of our FeverScreen device.
Q: So this might help people go back to work?
Yes. With screening devices, most people instantly think of airports. However, in the short-term, these devices might not be needed at airports in NZ because everyone entering New Zealand will be going into enforced isolation or quarantine.
Instead, some of the most critical places to use them will be for staff at medical facilities where there is a high risk of contagion and a high risk of contact with vulnerable people.
We think there is a large number of potential uses for these devices. We've identified quite a few already:
- Staff working in quarantine centres or isolation locations
- Supermarkets where there is a high risk of community transmission
- Food supply factories that are a part of our critical infrastructure but could have a high chance of infecting large numbers of people
- Companies that want to get back to work and provide a safe environment for their staff
And people are contacting us with more potential deployment cases every day.
Q: So we could deploy these devices in workplaces and other places where lots of people pass through. Is this a short-term project? If the virus is defeated in a couple of months, we won’t need these will we?
There is a significant chance that NZ will manage to control the spread of COVID-19. Even if that is the case, we need to keep monitoring to prevent a resurgence of infections. This technology could be deployed widely for the next 12-18 months until there is a vaccine. Beyond that, this could provide a permanent infrastructure to warn us of future outbreaks and allow us to react to them swiftly.
These are low-cost devices, so for companies installing them it only takes stopping one person from having a few days off sick each year to make the technology pay.
Q: You mentioned we could also use these devices to build an early warning network for outbreaks?
Yes. Because these devices are networked, they offer a lot of flexibility as an early warning detection network. The devices allow live configuration of temperature thresholds for different risk levels in different areas. A screening can be carried out in half a second and the cost per test works out to be a few cents. This makes it a very cost effective way to monitor a wide range of key places in New Zealand.
When required, more intensive hubs of networked devices could be deployed in communities where there has been an outbreak.
Q: Are you confident that temperature checkpoints such as this can help?
Yes, but that's not just us, there’s lots of evidence showing that this is the #1 most cost effective way to reduce contagion - Castalia have recently produced a report supporting this (see here: https://castalia-advisors.com/blog-after-the-lockdown/).
While only 30-50% of people infected with COVID-19 present with a fever, the virus loading in those individuals is 50-60 times higher than non-febrile patients, meaning they carry a much higher contagion risk. It is suspected that symptomatic people are vastly more likely to pass it on and the earlier they can be detected and contact-traced the better.
Q: What about the accuracy of the devices – is that important?
Yes, the core thermal technology has been used for fever detection at a mass scale and like any test it will not be 100% effective but it has the potential to detect significant cases that would otherwise not be detected.
Before 9/11 NZ did not have metal detectors at domestic airports. These thermal cameras could become as common - but without the need to empty the contents of your bags!
Q: There are a few thermal camera products already on the market – what makes the FeverScreen device different?
There are two types of devices available:
- Very expensive devices designed to pick people out of large crowds - this will not be the typical use case in New Zealand
- More cost effective devices designed to be used by a trained operator
None of these are connected to a flexible network for early detection and only a few of the high cost devices allow live configuration based on latest risk levels.
Additionally, the FeverScreen system can be connected to large number of external devices for lots of flexible modes of operation - e.g. link to automated doors, messaging boards, notification system etc.
Q: That sounds amazing but also sounds like quite a lot of work – what’s the current status of the work and timelines beyond that?
A lot of the core work had already been done before the pivot to FeverScreen. Due to the flexible nature of our thermal camera platform, we are able to link it to lots of additional capabilities, online systems etc.
Part of our team are working on this full time at the moment and features will be coming online thick and fast over the next few months. This effort will deliver a set of products and features specifically designed for NZ application and will meet both health and safety and data privacy requirements.
The Cacophony Project has had amazing help with this project from Callaghan Innovation along with folks from University of Canterbury and University of Auckland. Very impressive to see so many people wanting to help create tools to help NZ fight Covid 19.
Q: And what about the predators? What are the plans for getting back to dealing with them?
Hard to know when this crisis will pass but we’re planning to continue improving the FeverScreen as a key part of what we do for at least the next few months.
We haven’t ceased work on our core target of predator eradication but are putting some of our team on this to meet the immediate NZ need. The earlier we can reopen NZ the earlier all the other important projects around NZ can get going.
The work on FeverScreen will help build real-world experience which we’re confident can transfer to helping us evolve the solutions for predator eradication.
We also have a joint project to realise a protected EcoSanctuary at Living Springs (in the Port Hills south of Christchurch) – we’ll be back out in the field there once the lockdown is lifted.
This is an extremely busy time for everyone at Cacophony so many thanks to Grant for taking the time to answer these questions. If you would like to help this effort in any way, please do get in touch. As always, we welcome your feedback - please do share your thoughts in the comments below or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you'd like to know more about the devices, they are available via our partners at 2040: https://www.2040.co.nz/products/thermal-camera-to-detect-elevated-body-temperature