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Thermal Imaging: How Invisible Light Keeps You Safe

Posted on Thu, Feb 02, 2012 @ 11:00 AM

Article First Appeared on

Article Written by Marc Weber Tobias, Forbes Contributor


Marc Weber Tobias Marc is an investigative attorney and physical security specialist.

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I just attended the Intersec security conference in Dubai. It was the largest display of security technology in the Middle East and featured participants and vendors from Europe, the United States and Asia. It appeared from the hundreds of vendors present that the world has gone totally video for surveillance, facial recognition, motion sensing, integrated alarm systems, remote monitoring, low light level image capture, and many other applications. I would estimate that at least fifty percent of the displays were related to video technology. There were also some lock and safe manufacturers, armored vehicles produced in Dubai, and other assorted systems for government, private security, law enforcement and hospitality.

My thermal photograph was taken with a handheld camera. Note the presence of identifiable characteristics.

I attend a number of these gatherings every year so I am usually not very impressed with all the new gadgets, fancy packaging, and new modifications of existing products. The fact is that there is not a lot new but rather a recombination of technology that has already been developed. Having said that, one specific high-tech solution got my attention and I thought it was cool enough to write about. It is called FLIR, which is the acronym for Forward Looking Infrared. The initial technology was developed by Texas Instruments in 1956 when they began research on IR. In 1963 the first forward-looking infrared camera was developed, and went into production in 1966. A few years later, the FLIR Corporation in Portland, Oregon began doing business and has really pioneered useable applications for many different applications. This company is clearly the world leaders in this incredibly sophisticated and diverse imaging system for both government and the private sector.

See my interview with Barshar Al Zubaidi, who is assigned to the Dubai office.

I was first introduced to FLIR when I was involved in a serial murder investigation about ten years ago in South Dakota. We were looking for a fresh gravesite and obtained the assistance of the FBI who flew their FLIR-equipped aircraft to aid in the search. Infrared sensing technology looks at heat rather than light, so it can see different “signatures” that are left as the result of different temperature characteristics of objects, bodies, and items that have been touched by anything that has a different temperature than its surroundings. We used FLIR to look for temperature variations in the ground that would be likely to result from a freshly dug hole.

Unlike a traditional video image sensor that relies upon visible light and a glass lens that focuses specific frequencies onto a target sensor, the FLIR camera uses a germanium green-colored metal lens to focus heat in the form of infrared radiation onto a digital sensor. If you look at a FLIR lens it is solid and has no optical characteristics.  The heat from the target is translated into a visual image, as shown in the thermal photograph of my head.  This type of technology is different than low light level sensors used in night vision equipment which simply amplify visible light and near infrared ranges (0.4-1.0  μm). The wavelength of infrared that thermal imaging cameras detect is very different than visible light.

These lenses and associated hardware are extremely expensive, with a starting price tag of about $25,000, in part because of the limited availability of germanium from Africa.

There are many very neat applications for heat-sensing devices. These include fire fighting, medicine, security, border protection, environmental, equipment preventative maintenance, surveillance of living things, military uses on tanks, ships, and aircraft, open space surveillance and handheld applications. They are also quite useful in finding gas leaks on pipelines, and energy loss, as well as watershed temperature monitoring, and monitoring of wild game habitats. Handheld FLIR cameras are even used by hunters and game control officers to see animals at night, and for search and rescue operations to locate missing persons, especially in wooded areas and water. They are also valuable for monitoring active volcanoes, and for searching for drug labs at night.

These systems are also being used to identify hot spots in oil refineries, power plants, pipelines and a wide array of other applications where there is concern about heat buildup and potential damage or fire hazard. When I was traveling in Asia during the SARS epidemic, all major airports were scanning arriving passengers for temperatures in excess of the norm, which would indicate illness.

Our military uses FLIR technology in warfare because it offers three primary advantages. It is virtually impossible for the enemy to detect because no signal is sent out that can be intercepted, heat is very difficult to camouflage, and the systems are not prone to failures that are common in visible-light systems.

The systems can work in total darkness and are not affected by fog, haze smoke or other environmental factors which makes the technology ideal for security and surveillance operations. Unlike traditional video cameras there are no dead zones in which criminals or terrorists or other attackers can exploit the system and hide. Used in concert with ground sensors, radar, video cameras and thermal imaging, it is almost impossible to defeat or spoof one of these systems.

I learned from my colleagues with the Dubai Police that most of the royal families in the Middle East employ FLIR in conjunction with other sophisticated security measures to protect their palaces and homes. Because the systems are passive there is no reliable way to detect their presence or operation. They can see vehicles up to 21 Kilometers and a human about 18 Kilometer from a camera.

One of the most-clever uses of FLIR is embedding a tiny camera in the front grill of certain models of BMWs (5-6-7) to warn the driver of animals and pedestrians up to 500 meters in front of the vehicle. These systems are smart enough to alert the driver of hazards well in advance of what your headlights will show. Another innovative application is the use by Veterinarians to examine racehorses for inflammation and other problems that could aversely affect performance or injure the horse. This is especially popular in the GCC countries, where extremely expensive thoroughbred racehorses are one of the past times of the incredibly wealthy.

The latest iteration of these systems is seventh-generation technology and will allow the integration of enhanced video processing and readout of the temperature of a target, producing a 640 x 480 display of information. With digital detail enhancement and high-resolution sensors, a target can actually be identified which was not possible in earlier generations. Their proper deployment can replace fixed perimeter fences in certain applications with “virtual fences’ that will instantly alarm when an established area is penetrated. Imagine a virtual fence with a range from 200 meters to 21 Kilometers.

While these systems are extremely useful in law enforcement operations, there are serious privacy concerns because of the potential intrusive nature of the technology in surveillance operations.  In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case that involved warrantless surveillance of private property to detect a marijuana farming operation. A thermal imaging camera was used without a search warrant and was ruled unconstitutional in Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27. In contrast, the Canadian Supreme Court has determined that the use of thermal imaging by police did not require a warrant.

While I saw a lot of innovative technology at Intersec and other conferences I have recently attended, I don’t think that any traditional video system can match the capabilities of Infrared sensing. Its price tag is steep but if you have the responsibility to protect a facility or potential target with an almost foolproof surveillance system, this is clearly one alternative.

This is a very cool technology, even if it relies solely on heat to do its work!

Tags: thermal imaging, infrared technology, infrared, technology, invisible light

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