Flint, MI—The future is now. Police officers in Flint’s own Bishop International Airport have become the first in the country to use ‘smart helmets’ capable of monitoring an individual’s body temperatures both while on the move and at a distance. 

While the helmets, made by the Italian company KeyBiz, may not quite live up to the standards of RoboCop or Iron Man, they do sport a robust set of security features.

According to a press release from Bishop, these features include a super-accurate infrared camera mounted on the top of the helmet which can register the body surface temperature of multiple individuals from a maximum distance of 21 feet with a margin of error less than two-tenths of a degree Fahrenheit. 

On top of that, the helmets, of which three were purchased, have on-board facial recognition software, the capability to recognize license plates and to detect QR codes.  

Lt. Wayne McIntyre of the airport’s police force said the $30,000 price tag is minimal when compared to traditional temperature surveillance systems. These systems can oftentimes cost millions of dollars due to installation and the increased number of cameras needed due to the limited space they can cover. 

“We’re being more cost-effective in the way we do things while staying mobile,” said McIntyre. “A lot of airports around the country and around the world that are putting in static cameras at the entrances and exits that take temperatures are spending millions.”

The increased mobility of the helmet-mounted cameras means less have to be purchased while the same amount of ground is covered. “This platform allows the technology to go where the officer goes. We put the helmets on, we walk around the campus or the terminal and we’re able to pick up several temperatures at a time while we’re carrying out our normal duties,” said McIntyre. 

Exposure from travelers to officers and vice versa is another big concern. The helmets help there too. With 200 scans per minute, one smart helmet is able to do the work of several officers taking individual temperatures, which McIntyre said “allows us to not have to deploy so many people on the field to take temperatures, therefore keeping the public safe.”

While on patrol, officers wearing the helmets have been instructed to look for temperatures higher than 100.4 degrees. 

According to the press release, if an individual is found to have a high temperature, an “officer will approach the passenger and accompany them to the ticket counter of the airline they are/were flying, advising an agent or manager of their finding.”

From there, the airline will decide whether or not to let the individual board. In either situation, the officers record the individual’s details in case a later test result provides cause for contact tracing. 

Whenever law enforcement, facial recognition and constant surveillance is mentioned in the same sentence, concerns about privacy are sure to follow. 

The physical appearance of the helmets with their two protruding camera lenses, reflective visors and general bulkiness can be imposing, the idea that it can recognize your face even more so. Despite this, McIntyre said for the foreseeable future, only the temperature monitoring aspect of the helmet will be used.

Even when the helmet’s facial recognition functions are eventually activated, McIntyre said they will be more like a mobile extension of the airport’s existing surveillance system than anything else. 

Unlike the facial recognition systems usually depicted in movies, TVand network news graphics, the smart helmet’s software would not be scanning your face, pulling up your address or a list of your frequented locations. According to McIntyre, the software isn’t even hooked up to any databases, criminal or otherwise. 

 “This wouldn’t be indiscriminate, this would be very discriminate. We would have to physically upload a picture of an individual or individuals that we’re looking for. Our only intention would be (to identify) missing persons, trafficked individuals, amber alerts, things of that nature,” McIntyre said. 

For now, McIntyre says only two helmets will be used, with the third being kept as a back-up. The helmets are a simple and effective way to keep travelers and airport staff safe. Having the bragging rights to being the first institution in the western hemisphere to use them is just a bonus. 

Santiago Ochoa is Flint Beat's Latinx Community reporter. He is always looking to write about anything Flint or Latinx. He especially enjoys investigative reporting and human-interest stories. A communications...