FLIR's perspective on IP-connected thermal imaging cameras

Feb. 9, 2010 -- This winter has been the season of the networked (IP) thermal imaging surveillance camera. Previously if our industry was looking for IP thermal imagers, we were primarily seeing traditional analog thermal cameras being used with video encoders. Since then, we have seen both Axis Communications and FLIR launch new IP thermal cameras (see Axis product info; see FLIR product info). These launches pick up on an industry-wide trend toward networked video surveillance systems. To examine some of the finer points of this trend, we caught up with Bill Klink, vice president of FLIR's security and surveillance business unit, to talk about IP-connected thermal imaging cameras.

How would you compare the image quality of these new FLIR cameras to the previous (non-IP) models that users have seen at tradeshows and installed on their sites?

The image quality of our new range of IP cameras will be slightly better than our older range of our products, called SR models, but not because they are IP enabled and the old ones were just analog. The picture quality improvement is related to the smaller pixel size in the detector that our new products have. The older models have a 38 micron pixel and the new products have a 25 micron pixel. The smaller pixel detector will typically produce a slightly sharper image. The other technical element of our most recent product release concerned the detector format size of the models we introduced. We introduced a low-cost range of our IP products using a 160x120 pixel detector matrix. This extends our product line which we already introduced in pixel format sizes of 320x240 and 649x480. The bigger the detector format, the sharper the picture.

What are the challenges that IP/networked cameras present uniquely to the thermal market? Are there any specific challenges?

I would not say there are any challenges relating to thermal cameras being IP/networked. However, one aspect of any IP networked product is often a reduction in the displayed frame rate of the video picture due to bandwidth limitations. Often thermal cameras are deployed in outdoor perimeter intrusion detection or alarm/incident verification applications in which any reduction in displayed frame rate from the native 30 frames per second frame rate of the camera could make it more challenging to pick up transient events. Typically though, networking FLIR cameras over IP is not an issue because our cameras operate at a native frame rate of 30hz, so a small reduction in displayed frame rate due to bandwidth transmission can be tolerated. Some other companies (including Axis' thermal camera) only have a native frame rate of 9hz. In the best of networks they will only transmit at nine frames per second, so the utility of those cameras as perimeter security devices is reduced.

Axis Communications has said that lower cost networked/IP thermal cameras could be a benefit to video analytics companies because of clear distinction between an object and its surroundings. What is FLIR's take on this line of thought?

The claim Axis makes is intrinsically correct -- that thermal cameras typically provide a better video signal for video analytics software to operate with. However, faster frame rate also plays a big role in the efficacy of video analytics because most of those applications are related to capturing or analyzing moving or transient events. Video analytics operating on slow frame rate cameras will be less effective than analytics operating on full, 30 hertz frame rate cameras; 30hz means 30 frames per second, and 9hz means 9 frames per second. So the issue is about detecting and tracking transient things, like moving people, animals or cars (and virtually everything is in motion). The 9hz camera gives you nine individual pictures per second, which sounds like a lot by itself, but it is less than 30 percent of a standard 30hz camera, and the performance of video analytic software is typically degraded with slower frame rates.

On an IP network, it is normal for video to not transmit at the native frame rate of the camera, but even with high network traffic and bandwidth limitations you can expect to view more than nine frames per second unless the native frame rate of the camera is limited to that amount.

Are these new FLIR cameras working with the common video management (VMS) providers, and if not, what software would an end-user need for managing their thermal IP cameras?

By virtue of non-proprietary video compression formats, these cameras are compatible with most VMS platforms that embrace open standards. Specifically, two examples are Milestone and ONSSI, for which we have tested and verified performance with the latest universal drivers. FLIR also offers our own sensor networking software that is designed to operate in parallel with VMS products, and compliment them by adding an array of unique features including geo-referenced mapping, and video analytics that are specifically tuned for our thermal cameras.

Are you providing Axis any OEM work for their cameras? Is there any collaboration here?

FLIR supplies thermal camera core technology to a very large variety of customers in many different markets, however by policy we do not publicize collaboration with any specific company.

What kind of market growth does FLIR expect for IP thermal cameras?

Sales of FLIR thermal cameras has far exceeded the growth of the visible video security market, so we expect the growth of IP to mirror that of our composite products. Many of our customers are integrating cameras into existing legacy networks, so we expect to see continued demand for our SR-series cameras as well as our new range of IP products. It is important to note that the F-sereis cameras are actually hybrid devices. They offer IP video and simultaneous composite video. This is a powerful feature for companies currently deploying cameras in legacy composite networks but which plan to upgrade to IP in the future. The F-series uniquely supports this, in contrast to IP-only cameras.

FLIR has tended to be more focused on defense and high-end critical infrastructure applications in the past. Does the release of a $3,500 camera potentially change the kind of customers/buyers that FLIR can pursue?

Admittedly, the FLIR brand connotes "defense" and "high end" product applications, probably because of our strong legacy in the government border and defense markets. However, since introducing our thermal security products to the commercial video security market FLIR has experienced dramatic growth and adoption of this technology in the commercial video security marketplace, including residential applications. FLIR will continue to introduce products with industry leading price/performance, and that strategy will accelerate the adoption of this technology in all market segments. Our introduction of a $3,500 camera with several lens fields-of-view options will certainly fuel continued adoption of this technology in the commercial security market. We are already experiencing dramatic growth in light industrial, residential, and indoor applications (see through smoke, alarm verification, back-lit doorways, dimly lit environments like casinos and show places, loading docks, etc).