Thermal imaging ready for mainstream applications

Manufacturers discuss technology trends at ASIS 2012

For many years, thermal cameras were predominantly used to secure the perimeters of applications that required a level a security above and beyond what is typically required at a facility, such as critical infrastructure sites and military installations. As time as has gone by, however, innovations in thermal imaging have pushed the prices of cameras lower, which has subsequently led to an increase in adoption of the technology.

Many believe thermal cameras are at a point now where they are both viable and cost-effective security measures for a wide variety of mainstream commercial applications.

"Thermal imaging technology now is starting to approach the prices of megapixel cameras," said SightLogix CEO John Romanowich. "So, they’re really being very rapidly adopted and we’re seeing tremendous growth at this time. Thermal is going to be the new megapixel in terms of rapid market growth."

According to Bill Klink, vice president of Flir’s security and surveillance business unit, the prices of thermal cameras are coming down by virtue of increased volume.

"More volume is driving prices down. Adoption is increasing primarily in a horizontal way," he said. "We’re seeing a broader range of people that are deploying thermal cameras. An example might be, a few years ago at higher price points, it was only longer range port security or critical infrastructure-type applications. Now you’re seeing, because thermal cameras are coming down in price, the wider use of that technology down into more common industrial and business park scenarios. Everybody’s got a perimeter… and people in a much broader fashion are deploying thermal cameras in their perimeter applications."

Here are several trends the market is buzzing about at this year’s ASIS show in Philadelphia.

Image Quality

While many people are familiar with the megapixel and high-definition arms race in the traditional surveillance camera market, there has also been a move by thermal camera vendors to produce higher quality images. In the past, thermal images, due mainly to environmental factors, were more prone to becoming washed out or fuzzy, but advancements in the technology are making that more of a rarity these days.

"Part of it is because of several things. One is that the imagers are getting more sensitive, but the image processing is what’s increasing the quality of the image," said Romanowich "Additionally, that same detail is then used to create better results with analytics, which gives you greater coverage of a wider range of operating environments to include daytime operation where cameras really didn’t work that well during the day in the past, as well as more sensitivity to work during rain or snow or any environmental situation."

According to Romanowich, the key to improving thermal image quality lies in the processing of an image itself.

"There are higher resolution (thermal) cameras, but that’s not the issue. The issue has more to do with the fact that the dynamic range of the image is so much that the image processing can correct for it," he said. "For example, you can take an image that’s 320x240 resolution and actually produce a far superior image than a 640x480 if you have the proper image processing to do it. What happens is there is just way too much dynamic information."

Flir is also beefing up its image quality with the release of the new FC-Series camera at this year’s show, which offers wide dynamic range functionality in thermal imaging.

"What separates Flir from other people who make thermal cameras is wide dynamic range performance and it has to do with proprietary technology in some of our image processing," explained Klink. "Specifically, you could be looking at a scene of a perimeter and it’s sunrise, you’ve got the sun just coming up and just like a (traditional) video camera, you’ve got a very bright source, or in this case it’s not necessarily light but heat. Most cameras will clamp down on the sun and you won’t see anything else in the image. With Flir, you’re still going to see a person, a vehicle or animals in the foreground in a very low contrast scene."

This content continues onto the next page...