Thermal Video for the Mainstream?

Oct. 27, 2008
What used to be accessible only to military and government now comes in smaller form factors at affordable prices.

If you are to truly understand thermal imaging for security and safety, you must first understand a simple scientific fact. Visible light, invisible light and radio waves are all fundamentally the same thing: electromagnetic radiation. Each has a unique frequency (the rate at which a wave is created each second) and amplitude (intensity), and each plays an important role in security video imaging.

Differentiating Between Cameras

We have access to several different styles of camera for security video that create images based on different portions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

• Day/night. Many of you may refer to these units as color/black-and-white cameras. They can produce full-color images under good lighting and then switch automatically to black and white in lower light levels.

• Intensified. These units can produce usable, clear images in almost no light through the use of electron excitement and/or pixel enhancement. They often work in less than .000001 fc (.00001 lx).

• Infrared (IR). These units work in that invisible light zone just between visible light and microwaves.

• Radio wave. These cameras are fairly new to the security industry. In simplest, non-technical terms, they project radio waves that penetrate saline-based objects (such as the human body) up to a couple of inches. They give us the ability to detect, see and identify weapons and/or explosives being carried by individuals regardless of the clothing that hides them.

All of these cameras require some sort of light or electromagnetic radiation to be projected or reflected to create an image. If left out in the dark, all these camera styles would be totally blind. So we come to our final category of cameras: thermal.

Thermal cameras are the only cameras available to the security industry that require no reflected light, IR light or radio waves. They work off the principle of radiated energy. That is to say, all objects produce, store, dissipate and/or absorb heat. Therefore, if given a thermometer, all objects, animate or inanimate, could have their temperatures taken. The thermal camera takes the temperature of a scene in micro units and creates an image in which the colds are contrasted with the hots.

Thermal Goes Mainstream

Ten years ago, cumbersome was a polite definition of thermal camera size. The images created by these cameras were a mix of van Gogh and The Twilight Zone —warm-colored bodies moving through a sea of blacks, reds and blues. Even five years ago, the price tags on these units—in the tens of thousands of dollars—left them to the rich and the government. However, modern technology has allowed enhancements and improvements to both the physical and the technical side of these cameras.

Thermal cameras are now the size of large desk phones, and they can be easily placed within any standard analog or IP-based video system. The images are now available in easy-to-look-at, computer-enhanced full color. Thanks to supply and demand and the overall drop in technology cost, the thermal camera has become affordable to everyday industrial security applications. Today, you can pick up a good thermal camera for less than $5,000.

Where Can You Use Them?

OK, so thermal cameras are smaller and more affordable. That doesn't convince you that you need one. Say you have a simple security issue and you have plenty of light on your property. If that's the case, then you're right; you don't need this camera. However, if you are like thousands of others, you have some serious lighting issues in the back confines of your property or buildings. Stop thinking spy networks and mystery shots. Think applications.

I reviewed a job a year or so ago for a company that had to increase the general security around its perimeter fence line in order to comply with new security guidelines passed down from the corporate office. After a complete technical site review, they found that putting up five thermal cameras with good lenses was far less expensive than adding 20 new lights and poles at $15,000 a pop.

Not only that, but thermal cameras are available in a day/night version. They produce a good, clean, full-color image until the ambient light diminishes to a point below the threshold of the day portion's required sensitivity.

So you don't have a fence line. Where could you use this thermal wonder? Parking lots? No, not in most cases—that is, unless you are in the habit of cutting off all of the lights to save energy or money or you have large lots that are extremely dark at the outer edges.

The government eats up thermal cameras because they do not have a signature—they do not require a light source and so are not easily spotted by the bad guys. So if you need covert, this may be a good option.

How about mounted to a police car, helicopter or security cruiser? Absolutely. Following a suspect into the dark shadows of an alley or backyard is a difficult and dangerous business. You can break out the dogs and let them sniff out the culprit, or you can switch on the thermal and see the dude or dudette hiding behind a bush. Yes, you should be able to see through the bush (dependent, of course, upon its density). That's because the heat of your hidden foe is greater than the heat of the bush.

Thermal cameras have been used extensively in areas where the shadows are deep and dark, such as ship and train yards in which the various truck-sized containers block or obstruct the visible lighting. They may also be useful in areas such as large construction sites where the lighting is not yet established, and where you need a temporary system to cover expensive, potentially unsafe areas.

A Long-Term Investment

Think critically about your own facility. In which areas or applications could thermal cameras prove valuable? The key word here is valuable. If you take the cost of any device and compare it with the cost of the best or worst disastrous outcome—liabilities, lawsuits, injuries—and then weigh the balance of the cost of a standard solution, you may find thermal both viable and profitable in many hard-to-fit applications.

Take a good look at the new generation of thermal cameras and you will be looking at a long-term investment option. But as always, buyer beware! Test your application before asking for blessings.

Charlie R. Pierce is director of integrated security technology for IPC International Corporation. He can be reached at [email protected].