Since its outbreak in early 2020, COVID-19 has been wreaking havoc from Asia to Europe and the Americas. To tame the pandemic by avoiding human contact, a plethora of contactless sensing technologies have been developed. If classified according to the underlying technologies, there are four major types of contactless sensors: infrared thermal image sensing; millimeter wave radar; ToF (time-of-flight) 3D sensing; and environmental gas sensing.
The total market size for these four contactless sensing technologies for protection against COVID-19 is expected to reach $2.4 billion in 2020 and $4.5bn in 2023. Infrared thermal image sensing has the largest market size (at $1.92bn), followed by ToF (time-of-flight) 3D sensing ($940m), environmental gas sensing ($890m), and millimeter wave radar ($800m). As body temperature is one of the indicators to monitor the spread of COVID-19, the demand for infrared ear thermometers and forehead thermometers has risen dramatically. Taiwanese companies have reported that their shipments this year have grown nearly 10 fold year-on-year.
Meanwhile, the more time people have had to spend at home as part of the epidemic prevention measures has highlighted the importance of homecare and health management. This has been driving the demand for millimeter wave radar and ToF (time-of-flight) 3D sensing. Like infrared thermal sensing, these two technologies also have the advantage of de-identification. They can be used to detect, in a contactless manner, the change of elderly people’s breathing patterns and activity status.
Some scientists in Europe recently detected coronavirus in aerosols and indicated that the virus may be able to live in the air. The threat of polluted particulate matter PM2.5 and the spread of the virus are accelerating the application of environmental gas and particulate matter sensing. This will also be one of the key contactless technologies in the future.
Contactless sensing technology speeds up the integration of AI and biometrics
Before the mass adoption of vaccines occurs, protection against contracting the virus is the new normal. For Taiwanese companies, the market entry strategy for contactless sensing should focus on the integration of applications and devices in different use cases. For instance, ToF 3D sensing in healthcare can be used in four-axis robots and transport robots to replace medical personnel. This avoids the risk of exposure to contaminated materials and reduces the risk of infection.
Given the growing need to stay at home and away from the virus, existing inspection and detection technologies for large spaces (such as public transportation) are now being deployed in the residential environment. Some system providers are applying sensing technologies in home bathrooms, living areas and entrances, to monitor the activity of those being cared for at home. Sensing technology is being integrated into a variety of devices (such as lamps), on the ceilings and walls, to detect the user’s activity.
In addition to location-based use cases, technologies such as AI and facial recognition may be utilized to protect against the virus. For example, it is possible to measure physiological metrics at home with contactless technologies, and combine these solutions with biometrics such as images, voices, and fingerprints to extend the value chain. It can also be further integrated into home security, access control and anti-theft functions to provide assurance for home safety.
Some startups present at the CES this year showcased the integration of facial recognition with contactless technology to measure heart rates. Academics in Taiwan have recently been discussing the feasibility of relevant technologies. Going forward, sensing technologies will be combined with AI computing to collect physiological data from human bodies or environmental changes. This will be processed with machine learning and deep learning to create solutions that combine sensing, judgement and decision-making to enhance the value of sensing technology applications.
Strengths of the semiconductor industry in Taiwan
The trade war between China and the U.S. last year has led to the transfer of orders for sensing components away from China, and Taiwanese manufacturers have been one of the beneficiaries. The pandemic in 2020 has forced many production sites around the world to suspend manufacturing, and the production capacity has continued to decline. In contrast, Taiwan has strong sensor manufacturing industry, and it has been one of the best performing countries at fending off COVID-19. Sensor component companies may see further growth and better order visibility.
Finally, it is suggested that Taiwanese companies should further explore the needs for contactless sensing technologies in different fields, in order to create a diverse range of usage cases by combining sensing components with systems, applications and devices. This is to expand from the straightforward application of contactless measurements to the creation of solutions that integrate measurements, monitoring, and identification. The flexible and strategic adjustment focusing on COVID-19-related applications will help Taiwanese companies create a new blue-ocean market in contactless sensing technology.