COVID-19 Sensors in Development

June 7, 2020
COVID-19 Sensors in Development

Will bomb sniffing dogs find themselves out of work?  Technology originally being developed to identify chemicals or explosives in airports and planes is now being repurposed to seek and find people carrying coronavirus.

Airbus and California tech start-up, Koniku, are developing a contactless screening sensor that can detect the presence of COVID-19 in people’s breath or sweat, even if they are unaware that they are infected.  Sensors can be mounted on airport or airplane walls. An alarm would sound if an infected person walks by.

Testing in airports could begin as early as the end of the year.

Video Spotlight: 

This post is based on the Fox News article, Airbus eyeing “smell sensors” capable of detecting coronavirus on planes, by Brooke Crothers, May 7, 2020, and the YouTube videos in the Spotlight. Image source: Westend61/Getty Images

Discussion Questions:

1. Where in the product life cycle is the idea of using smell sensors to detect disease?

Guidance: While dogs have been successfully trained to identify minor changes in the smell of a person’s breath or sweat associated with cancer or influenza-A, using them to spot disease can be costly and time consuming.  In addition, the dogs are not always accurate.  Using dogs for disease detection is still relatively limited.

The smell sensors are in an even earlier phase of introduction, with the technology still being developed and perfected. During this phase, businesses and/or consumers need to be educated about the product, its uses, its desirability, and its benefits in order for it to move into the next phase of the product life cycle, growth.

2. Would the smell sensor studies be considered basic or applied research?

Guidance: This is an example of applied research at Koniku and Airbus, meaning that the research is being done with an eye towards near-term development and commercial sales.  Basic research, on the other hand, is done to advance a body of knowledge, rather than having an immediate commercial application.

3. How does the idea of smell sensors differ from other possible solutions to keep airline passengers and workers safe in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis?

Guidance: News reports typically show airports using social distancing similar to what has been seen in retail stores.  Meanwhile, airlines leave empty seats or even rows within the aircraft and limit inflight service to reduce points of contact.  Another approach being considered involves designing new seating layouts for planes.  Some envision partitions between passengers, or combining the partition idea with seats that alternately face the rear and front of the plane as ways to minimize passenger exposure to the germs of those seated around them.  However, some models suggest that germs such as COVID-19 could still travel through the air on the plane and infect people seated even some distance away.

The smell sensor approach, on the other hand, is preventive.  Rather than trying to create new layouts in airport facilities or planes to protect passengers from each other, infected passengers would be quickly and easily identified and not allowed to be on the plane at all.  Even their presence in the airport could be kept to a minimum if they are identified soon after entering.

4. How would this innovative product design change the airport screening processes?

Guidance: This interesting idea could also reshape airport screening.  If it could detect explosive materials or dangerous chemicals, passengers might be spared the complex and time-consuming screenings that are required before entering the gate areas of the airport.  Less space would be required for long lines of people who have to unpack belongings and remove clothing, and less physical contact or closeness would be needed between the passengers themselves as well as with security screeners.


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