Thermal imaging plays major role in bombing manhunt

A FLIR camera was able to locate Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, even though he was hiding inside a covered boat


The arrest of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Watertown, Mass. on April 19 triggered celebrations in the Boston area, but more than 3,000 miles west, one company celebrated its role in his capture.

The Massachusetts State Police helicopter that was able to spot the 19-year-old hiding inside a covered boat behind a residence was equipped with a thermal imaging camera manufactured by Wilsonville, Ore.-based FLIR Systems Inc.

The Star SAFIRE III camera picked up the heat of the suspect, even though he was underneath the boat's cover.

Andy Teich, President of FLIR's Commercial Systems Division, was on his way back from Germany -- transiting through Chicago's O'Hare Airport -- when he saw the news.

Listen to a Podcast interview with FLIR's Andy Teich

"When I heard it was Massachusetts State Police, I knew it was our camera," he said, noting that the agency has been a very good customer over the years.

When he made it back to Wilsonville, he said employees were cheering right along with everyone in Watertown.

"We were all thrilled," he said. "We build these cameras to aid law enforcement and we love to see when these systems are put to use in a manner that not only protects the officers, but significantly improves the situational awareness."

Finding Tsarnaev

Watertown resident David Henneberry called police that night to report that Tsarnaev might be hiding in his backyard.

The suspect's location was narrowed to Henneberry's covered boat and flash-bang grenades were deployed to subdue him.

Teich said the camera's ability to detect the heat from Tsarnaev's body through the cover on the boat was a key factor in finding him.

"This imager is a mid-way thermal imager -- meaning that it looks in a certain area of the infrared spectrum in the 3-5 micron range," he said. "Why that was significant in this case is that in that particular spectrum, many plastics become transparent."

During his 29 years in the industry, Teich said that his was the first time he's seen such application of thermal imaging play a major role in locating a person.

"It was very interesting and useful in this case that once they knew that the suspect was likely in this boat, they could fly in and have a look down and actually see right through that cover and see where he was on the boat, what position he was lying in, whether he was moving or holding something."

Another element of the thermal imaging camera that factored into the capture was a recently added feature that allows the person operating the device to lock into a particular spot.

Massachusetts State Police purchased the Star SAFIRE III in 2005, but upgraded all four of its FLIR systems in 2012 with a GeoPoint feature that keys into a target so that if the helicopter rotates, the user doesn't have to keept the system pointed on it.

"They were circling over this target and they could keep the unit locked on the boat at all times," Teich said.

The Importance of Thermal Imaging for L.E.

Teich said that thermal imagers can play a big role in finding suspects who are fleeing from law enforcement and for search and rescue of lost persons.

"Most major law enforcement organizations and many rural law enforcement organizations have some type of thermal capability," he said. "It's become quite prevalent today."

The particular system that Massachusetts State Police has is a higher-end system that sells for several hundred thousand dollars.

"They've got fairly high-end equipment mounted on twin turbine helicopters," he said. "They are sort of on the upper-end of capability."

While thermal imaging systems are often used in the air, they are becoming more common on the ground as well.

"The use of handheld systems and vehicle-mounted systems has become much more prevalent in the last few years," Teich said.

FLIR introduced a line of handheld thermal imagers -- called the LS Series -- about three years ago and continues to augment the line.

"It's doing very well in the market right now and we're receiving a very good response," he said.

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