Axis looks to heat up thermal imaging camera business

Axis Communications, the Swedish company known for a market-leading position in the IP video surveillance market, today unveiled two new thermal imaging IP cameras that could change the marketplace for this technology, said Axis Americas' General Manager Fredrik Nilsson in an interview with SecurityInfoWatch.com.

With the company already having in place a wide range of IP video cameras, from affordable consumer grade models to high-end professional models, Nilsson said that a want to provide full night vision cameras (as opposed to the standard day/night products that are common to this industry) drove today's launch of indoor and outdoor thermal cameras.

"Bad things tend to happen night because people think they are protected by the darkness, and they often are to some extent," explained Nilsson, who noted that most traditional day/night cameras face significant challenges in poorly lit environments.

He added that security camera users have typically had a few options for dealing with that challenge. The first option was to add more lighting in the environment (which he noted can be effective, but also can be expensive and not practical in some situations, and still can leave areas uncovered unless the illumination is well designed). Other options were to use light enhancing vision tools like night vision goggles, or to add infrared illuminators which provide a spectrum of light only visible to cameras. Both options, said Nilsson, have the challenge that they can be intentionally blinded, and infrared illuminators can also be detected by dedicated crooks.

Those challenges left the company interested in thermal cameras, which register temperature differentials between a person and the environment. While such cameras are more expensive than traditional cameras (Axis' new models have MSRPs of $2999 and $3499, depending on whether you are getting the indoor or outdoor version), he says they don't require additional equipment such as infrared illuminators or the installation of visible light sources.

Also on the plus side, thermal cameras have the ability to detect through poor conditions (fog, smoke, rain – although rain does decrease the imaging function of thermal cameras to some extent), and by not requiring additional light sources to be installed, he notes that this can be seen as a more "green" option.

Of course, thermal cameras aren't always a perfect solution. Thermal cameras have their own drawbacks, such as not being able to see through glass (glass blocks thermal radiation) and facing mirroring/reflection issues with some concrete environments. Because of the limitations of thermal, Nilsson notes that Axis is cautioning its U.S. sales team to not "oversell" the cameras, but to rather position the cameras for use with projects where thermal cameras fill a gap that standard day/night types of cameras will not suffice.

While thermal cameras often are considered too expensive for most jobs (traditionally the cameras have run from $5,000 to upwards of $30,000 depending upon configuration, and have been predominantly purchased in the defense industry), Nilsson says the price at which Axis has introduced the cameras makes the solution reasonably affordable for commercial installations, which are likely to adopt such technology for perimeter and area protection.

"The consumer industry, where we have even seen thermal cameras installed on [high-end luxury] automobiles, is driving up volume, which has dropped pricing," Nilsson says, "That makes it more available for the security market, which is extremely price sensitive."

On a side note, Nilsson thinks that the introduction of more affordable thermal cameras may lead to improved adoption of video analytics. He explains that the clear differentiation between a human and the background environment can help video analytics algorithms detect intrusions, though he notes that the benefit of thermal cameras depends on the type of algorithms used.

"It depends on how the analytics companies have their analytics algorithms," explains Nilsson. "If they are tracking people by the colors of jackets, then that would be impossible [because thermal does not produce real color images]. Pixel-based and blob-based algorithms would work best."

Being that these are IP cameras and are ONVIF standards compatible, Nilsson notes that they have the ability to be used by any variety of video management systems which support Axis cameras (many other thermal imaging solutions require their proprietary management systems be used), and the cameras can use power over Ethernet (PoE) to simplify cabling for power and data transmission.

The Axis cameras the (Q1910 indoor and the Q1910-E outdoor) offer a range designed commercial applications. These aren't the defense models that can watch individuals from miles away as they approach military bases and nuclear plants, but they can detect persons at up to 220 yards, and can detect vehicles at up to 600 yards.

Nilsson says it may be the beginning of a strong market shift for thermal into the commercial sector.

"If we are successful, I think we will see other companies coming out with competitive products in a year, but that could be sooner. I think it makes sense to use some thermal cameras in many surveillance systems."

Quick facts on thermal imaging cameras:

  • Thermal cameras detect heat, and register that heat as temperature differentials
  • Thermal cameras do not "see" color, though manufacturers often give end-users different color schemes for seeing the heat imaging – black/white, multi-colored
  • Thermal cameras still leave subjects anonymous; they do not capture details like faces. Most manufacturers recommend using thermal in conjunction with standard cameras if the end-user needs surveillance for individual identification as opposed to threat detection.
  • Thermal cameras cannot see through glass, and thus can't be used with standard enclosures with glass view plates.
  • The expensive part of thermal cameras is the lenses, which use the mineral germanium, instead of optical glass.
  • Concrete can sometimes reflect thermal radiation, and system specifying engineers should assess the site with this in mind.
  • Rain can challenge thermal cameras; the rain can cool down the temperature of an individual, making the person more difficult to detect.
  • Thermal cameras constantly recalibrate themselves to the environment's overall temperature so they can still measure thermal differentials.

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