Thermal imaging: A technology ready to further conquer the world

Thermal imaging: A technology ready to further conquer the world

A lot of technologies that we are considering to be quite common today have found their origin in military applications. Radar and jet engines were originally developed by and for the military. Global Positioning Systems, commonly known as GPS, were developed in the early 1970’s by the United States Department of Defense to guide missiles. The mother of all military inventions is what the Pentagon official dubbed the “Intergalactic Network.” That wild idea became the Internet.

Today there is another technology that has also found its origin in military applications, finding its way in to many useful civilian applications. It is a technology that will not only change our lives, but it will save lives as well. The technology is called: thermal imaging.

The first thermal imaging camera for the military was developed in Sweden in 1958 by a company named AGA, today known as FLIR Systems. Since it is able to produce a clear image in total darkness, thermal imaging technology provides the ability to see and target opposing forces through the darkest of nights. Thermal imaging cameras can see through light fog, rain and snow. They also have the ability to see through smoke which made them even more interesting for the military since they can see across a smoke-covered battleground.

The first infrared camera for commercial applications was developed in 1965. It was used for power line inspections. It took until 1973 until the first “portable” battery operated infrared camera was introduced. Although being called “portable”, this systems still was very bulky. The technology used at that point in time required that the camera was filled with liquid nitrogen to cool down the infrared detector integrated in the system. It needed to wait until 1997 until a thermal imaging camera with an uncooled detector.

So how will thermal imaging technology reach the lives of everyday consumers? What are the benefits that they can have?

Driver vision enhancement
A major step to the volume production of thermal imaging cameras was taken a few years ago. BMW decided that it would implement a thermal imaging camera for driver vision enhancement into their top-of-the-line 7-series. Later on, the same “BMW Night Vision” module became also available as an option on BMW 5- and 6-series models. The high demand for this safety option allowed FLIR Systems, the world leader for thermal imaging cameras, to increase production significantly. Today, for driver vision enhancement only, thousands of thermal imaging cameras are being produced by FLIR System.

Nighttime driving presents serious risks to drivers of trucks, buses and other heavy vehicles. Many serious accidents occur at night, in fog, light rain, because the driver could not see the accident cause in time to prevent the collision. Each year, thousands of nighttime accidents occur with large vehicles, many due to adverse weather conditions. Drivers lack the ability to quickly reduce speed, fatigue can negatively affect reaction time, and vision gets severely impaired in the dark.

Thermal imaging is a powerful driver vision enhancement system, which significantly reduces the risks of night time driving and allows the driver to see up to 5x further than with headlights. It needs no light whatsoever to operate. Thanks to thermal imaging, drivers can more quickly detect and recognize potential hazards and avoid deadly accidents.

By allowing drivers to see thermal images of the road ahead - well beyond what headlights illuminate - drivers are able to detect obstacles, curves in the road, ... much sooner and have more time to react. Thermal imaging also helps drivers to see road edges better, see approaching curves earlier, to overcome momentary blindness from oncoming headlight glare, and to see through smoke, dust, light fog and light rain.

But not only luxury cars are benefiting from thermal imaging. A thermal imaging camera like the FLIR Systems PathFindIR, can easily be integrated in trucks and busses. Also trains and metros are starting to be equipped with thermal imaging cameras. Emergency vehicles like fire trucks and ambulances that need to get to the scene of an accident as quickly as possible, also during the night, have also discovered the benefits of thermal imaging. Furthermore, if a fire is involved thermal imaging cameras can see through the smoke and help the driver to get to the scene of the accident without causing other accidents.

Night vision enhancement is not only important for drivers of a vehicle. Captains of a ship need to navigate during the night as well. The costly vessel, its passengers, cargo and crew need to be protected.

A thermal imaging camera allows captains to see in total darkness. They can clearly see channel markers, shipping lane traffic, outcroppings of land, bridge pilings, exposed rocks, other vessels and any other floating object that might damage a ship when undetected. Even small objects, that might not be detected by radar, such as floating debris, become clearly visible on a thermal image.

But installed on a ship, a thermal imager can save lives as well. Finding a person that has fallen overboard within the shortest possible time-frame is of the utmost importance. Not only can the person float away from the vessel but hypothermia is an important factor to take into account. Thanks to thermal imaging the drowning person can quickly be located and helped out of the water.

Installed in airplanes, thermal imaging be used as a landing aid. It can help pilots by enhancing the ability to see terrain and other aircraft at long ranges, even in total darkness, light fog, dust and smoke.

Thermal imaging cameras will never replace the existing tools and instruments on which a captain is relying when landing his plane. It can however complement them by giving the captain a clear image of the situation.

Also when taxiing at low speeds, a thermal image can help to avoid accidents. Remember that a thermal imaging camera can see through light fog and rain. It can therefore easily detect other airplanes or objects that can not be detected by the naked eye in harsh weather conditions.

Making the world a safer place
Thermal imaging is also making its way into more and more security and surveillance applications. Whereas it used to be the privilege of border patrols and other government related agencies to use a thermal imaging camera, today more and more industrial facilities are using the power of a thermal imager to protect their valuable assets and personnel.

Nuclear plants, petrochemical installations, warehouses, ports and airports, ... they all are vulnerable to theft, or even worse terrorist attacks, and can be protected by using thermal imaging cameras. Terrorism, vandalism, and random violence threaten the safety of personnel and the integrity of public and private facilities. A comprehensive security program utilizing thermal imaging cameras is the key to asset protection and risk mitigation. Thermal imaging exposes threats hidden in the darkness, concealed by adverse weather, and veiled by obscurants like dust, fog, and smoke.

Thermal imaging is also used by the police and other law enforcement agencies. It allows them to find and follow suspects in total darkness. Suspects cannot hide in bushes or shadows since their heat signature is easily picked up by a thermal imager.

But also in this area, thermal imaging cameras are finding their way to consumers. Big houses and estates are today already being guarded with the help of thermal imaging cameras and it might just be a matter of time before a lot of home security systems are complemented with a small but powerful thermal imager.

The future of thermal imaging
Undoubtedly, thermal imaging cameras will follow the same path as other products followed before. The equipment will become even compact, image quality will even further improve and more features will be implemented in the thermal cameras.

Where this will lead to, nobody knows. But chances are high that within a very short timeframe, every policeman, firefighter, security guard, ... will have its own thermal imaging camera. The majority of cars, truck, trains and other vehicles might be equipped with thermal imaging technology.

After all, for seeing in the dark, and many other useful applications, thermal imaging is a tool that outperforms all others.


For more information about the evolution and applications of thermal imaging, like firefighting, building inspection, search and rescue, please download the document, Thermal Imaging – A technology to future conquer the world here.

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