We are living in a day and age where new technologies are brought to market faster than ever before. One technological breakthrough is often quickly leading to another. A new technology is often introduced even before people can familiarize themselves with the previous one. New products, based on these new technologies, are being launched continuously. Sometimes they are quite expensive in the introduction stage, but once the early adapters have had a chance to buy the product and once it can go into mass production, prices rapidly go down and the product sometimes even almost becomes a commodity. Just one example is the mobile phone. Bulky and expensive in the beginning it has rapidly become a product that fits in the palm of the hand and is being used daily by millions of people.
But the mother of all military inventions is what the Pentagon official dubbed the "Intergalactic Network." That wild idea became the Internet. Undoubtedly, it is the one military invention that changed our world the most.
Today there is another technology that has also found its origin in military applications, finding its way in to many useful civilian applications. It is a technology that will not only change our lives, but it will save lives as well. The technology is called: thermal imaging.
Whereas a normal camera is dependant on light to produce an image, a thermal imaging camera, sometimes also called an infrared camera, is able to pick up minimal temperature differences and convert them to a crisp thermal image on which the smallest of details can be seen. Contrary to other technologies, such as light amplification which need at least a small amount of light to produce an image, thermal imaging can see in total darkness. It needs no light at all.
The first infrared camera for commercial applications was developed in 1965. It was used for power line inspections. It took until 1973 until the first "portable" battery operated infrared camera was introduced.
Although being called "portable", this systems still was very bulky. The technology used at that point in time required that the camera was filled with liquid nitrogen to cool down the infrared detector integrated in the system. This lasted until 1985 when FLIR Systems introduced the first system not requiring liquid nitrogen to cool the detector. Instead, a so called cryocooler was integrated.
From military to industrial applications
Although thermal imaging cameras have always been used by the military, it took until the introduction of the microbolometer before it started making its way into commercial, industrial applications.
The first industrial customers to discover the benefits of thermal imaging were big production companies. Thermal imaging cameras not only produce an image based on temperature differences, these temperature differences can also clearly be measured. It is possible, thanks to complicated algorithms implemented in a thermal imaging camera, that absolute temperature values can be calculated.
Industry quickly discovered that thermal
imaging can give valuable information about electrical equipment. Fuses, connections, cables, but also high voltage equipment like transformers, power lines and many more, it can all easily and contactless be inspected with a thermal imaging camera. The advantage is that thermal imaging can help maintenance managers to see an anomaly before a real problem occurs. This way, costly breakdowns can be avoided and time and money can be saved.
But within the same companies also Research and Development departments became enthusiast about thermal imaging technology. It is most beneficial to make use of infrared thermography early in a product design cycle. In the development phase, before going into mass production, appliances are thoroughly tested. Consumers are expecting a perfect product at an affordable price. Thanks to infrared, companies can shorten the development phase and start getting a rapid return on their development investments.
Thanks to the fact that more and more industrial companies started to use thermal imaging technology, the first careful steps to so-called volume production could be taken. But even then, thermal imaging cameras were still a very expensive tool costing 20,000 Euros or more. Thermal imaging was still a very exotic technology not known to consumers. The only thermal images that consumers got to see were the ones used in Hollywood pictures like Predator I and II.
High volume production
So what has changed? How will thermal imaging technology reach the lives of everyday consumers? What are the benefits that they can have?
Later on, the same "BMW Night Vision" module became also available as an option on BMW 5- and 6-series models. The high demand for this safety option allowed FLIR Systems, the world leader for thermal imaging cameras, to increase production significantly. Today, for driver vision enhancement only, thousands of thermal imaging cameras are being produced by FLIR System. One of the consequences of this increased production volume is a significant reduction in the price of a thermal imaging camera. Today, a thermal imaging camera can be purchased for a price of less than 3,000 €. Although this may still seem expensive, it is a huge difference compared to the 50,000 € about only 6 years ago.
But volume production was not driven by consumer goods only. Again, the military had part in it. One of the drivers was Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). UAV's are becoming more and more common in military and civilian operations, especially miniature aircraft designed to fly at low altitude. These hand launched, radio-controlled planes can be equipped with video cameras that are down-linked to a ground station. They are extremely suited for reconnaissance operations or to follow movements of troops on the battle field.
Lower prices, more applications, higher volumes, lower prices, ....
Now that volumes are going up and prices are coming down, more and more applications for thermal imaging cameras start to emerge. Some of these applications exist already for numerous years, but they were always the privilege of the happy few, that could afford it to spend a huge amount of money to buy a thermal imaging camera.
Driver vision enhancement
As mentioned before, driver vision enhancement is the application that probably contributed the most to the volume increase of thermal imaging cameras.
Nighttime driving presents serious risks to drivers of trucks, buses and other heavy vehicles. Many serious accidents occur at night, in fog, light rain, because the driver could not see the accident cause in time to prevent the collision. Each year, thousands of nighttime accidents occur with large vehicles, many due to adverse weather conditions. Drivers lack the ability to quickly reduce speed, fatigue can negatively affect reaction time, and vision gets severely impaired in the dark.
By allowing drivers to see thermal images of the road ahead - well beyond what headlights illuminate - drivers are able to detect obstacles, curves in the road, ... much sooner and have more time to react. Thermal imaging also helps drivers to see road edges better, see approaching curves earlier, to overcome momentary blindness from oncoming headlight glare, and to see through smoke, dust, light fog and light rain.
But not only luxury cars are benefiting from thermal imaging. A thermal imaging camera like the FLIR Systems PathFindIR, can easily be integrated in trucks and busses. Also trains and metros are starting to be equipped with thermal imaging cameras. Emergency vehicles like fire trucks and ambulances that need to get to the scene of an accident as quickly as possible, also during the night, have also discovered the benefits of thermal imaging. Furthermore, if a fire is involved thermal imaging cameras can see through the smoke and help the driver to get to the scene of the accident without causing other accidents.
Night vision enhancement is not only important for drivers of a vehicle. Captains of a ship need to navigate during the night as well. The costly vessel, its passengers, cargo and crew need to be protected.
A thermal imaging camera allows captains to see in total darkness. They can clearly see channel markers, shipping lane traffic, outcroppings of land, bridge pilings, exposed rocks, other vessels and any other floating object that might damage a ship when undetected. Even small objects, that might not be detected by radar, such as floating debris, become clearly visible on a thermal image.
But installed on a ship, a thermal imager can save lives as well. Finding a person that has fallen overboard within the shortest possible time-frame is of the utmost importance. Not only can the person float away from the vessel but hypothermia is an important factor to take into account. Thanks to thermal imaging the drowning person can quickly be located and helped out of the water.
Installed in airplanes, thermal imaging be used as a landing aid. It can help pilots by enhancing the ability to see terrain and other aircraft at long ranges, even in total darkness, light fog, dust and smoke.
Thermal imaging cameras will never replace the existing tools and instruments on which a captain is relying when landing his plane. It can however complement them by giving the captain a clear image of the situation.
Also when taxiing at low speeds, a thermal image can help to avoid accidents. Remember that a thermal imaging camera can see through light fog and rain. It can therefore easily detect other airplanes or objects that can not be detected by the naked eye in harsh weather conditions.
Firefighters have been using thermal imaging cameras for years in order to see in absolute darkness through smoke, as well as to detect hot spots in floors, walls and ceilings. Smoke has a large component of micron-sized carbon soot particles in it, making it very absorbing to visible light. However, when the particle size is significantly smaller than the wavelength of light used by a sensor, the scattering is greatly reduced, making it possible to see through smoke. The ability of thermal imaging cameras to see through smoke helps to saves lives. People can easily be located in a smoke-filled room.
The ability to detect temperature differences of objects is vitally important to firefighters, who must often open doors that lead to fires, or who must identify the seat and extension of a fire quickly and reliably. Thermal imaging cameras have proven to be an excellent tool when used by experienced and well trained firefighters.
The life-saving capabilities of a thermal imaging camera are well known to firefighters, and today, more and more firemen can benefit from the power of a thermal imaging camera.
Making the world a safer place
Thermal imaging is also making its way into more and more security and surveillance applications. Whereas it used to be the privilege of border patrols and other government related agencies to use a thermal imaging camera, today more and more industrial facilities are using the power of a thermal imager to protect their valuable assets and personnel.
Thermal imaging is also used by the police and other law enforcement agencies. It allows them to find and follow suspects in total darkness. Suspects can not hide in bushes or shadows since their heat signature is easily picked up by a thermal imager.
But also in this area, thermal imaging cameras are finding their way to consumers. Big houses and estates are today already being guarded with the help of thermal imaging cameras and it might just be a matter of time before a lot of home security systems are complemented with a small but powerful thermal imager.
Search and rescue missions
The main task of Search and Rescue professionals is to find people which are in distress, lost, sick or injured. Either in a remote or difficult to access area, such as mountains, desert or forest, or at sea, whether close to shore or not. Searches can be performed by personnel on foot, horse, or by using vehicles. Often, when available, air support is being used.
Thermal imaging cameras are sometimes mounted on helicopters flying over the scene to be searched. A thermal imager seamlessly detects human activity in otherwise remote areas so that the victim can be found before it is too late. A thermal imaging camera can do this in the darkest of nights, on land, in the air or at sea.
Since the oil crisis in the 1970s we have become increasingly conscious that our energy stocks are valuable and limited. Global warming of the earth due to CO2 emissions is also known to be largely caused by pollution related to burning fossil fuels used for heating buildings. More and more countries are setting up legislation to inspect buildings on a regular basis for heat losses.
Human body temperature is a complex phenomenon. Man is homeothermic, and produces heat, which must be lost to the environment. The interface between that heat production and the environment is the skin. This dynamic organ is constantly adjusting to balance the internal and external conditions, while meeting the physiologic demands of the body.
Thermal imaging is widely accepted as an accurate and reliable tool for medical assessment and diagnosis. Changes in the thermal conductivity of the skin caused by burns, skin ulceration or grafting can easily be detected and monitored with a sensitive thermal imaging system. Other common applications include early detection of skin cancer, pain management, burn depth assessment, fever detection, open heart surgery,...
Also during the SARS outbreak a few years ago, thermal imaging cameras were widely used to prevent the spreading of this disease. Various countries set up thermal imaging cameras in airports to find people with an elevated body temperature. Once a person with potential SARS systems was detected, he was further screened by medical personnel.
Thermal imaging allowed for screening a huge number of people within a very short time-frame.
The future of thermal imaging
Undoubtedly, thermal imaging cameras will follow the same path as other products followed before. The equipment will become even compact, image quality will even further improve and more features will be implemented in the thermal cameras.
As thermal imaging cameras are finding their way in more and more consumer oriented applications like driver vision enhancement and home security, the interest for the product will rise, production volumes will go up and prices will come down.
Where this will lead to, nobody knows. But chances are high that within a very short time-frame, every policeman, firefighter, security guard, ... will have its own thermal imaging camera. The majority of cars, truck, trains and other vehicles might be equipped with thermal imaging technology.
After all, for seeing in the dark, and many other useful applications, thermal imaging is a tool that outperforms all others.
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