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Why the thermal camera market is getting hotter

Mention thermal cameras and most people might immediately think expensive, high-end applications for military or critical infrastructure. Not so anymore as companies discover a variety of uses for the heat-seeking devices that operate well in the dark and can solve myriad perimeter protection problems in addition to other uses.

April 5, 2011  By Jennifer Brown

The traditional markets for these cameras that were once priced in the $10,000 to $15,000 range include critical infrastructure such as bridges, outdoor security and situational awareness. But the price is coming down rapidly. Three to four years ago, thermals were not a viable commercial video security appliance as they were expensive, but now because of the volume of the chips being produced that go into the cameras, they are available for less than $3,000 MSRP.

“I think we’re seeing thermal coming into the medium-to-high security commercial installations in particular in utilities and critical infrastructure such as hydro generation sites,” says Andrew Rimmer, Director of Business development with Irisys based in the U.K. “And with the desire to reduce use of artificial lighting there is interest in thermal as well.”

And as use of video analytics increases thermal imaging is being seen as a good match with analytics software.

“We’re also seeing a lot of CCTV manufacturers who don’t have thermal are now interested in introducing it to their line up,” says Rimmer.


So while thermal cameras are still more expensive than a video camera and there are still some models in that $15,000 range for further distances, they are becoming more attractive for a broader range of uses as an alternative or preference to video.

“One of the hot vertical markets for thermal is in critical infrastructure and particularly bridges,” says Bill Klink, vice-president of security for FLIR. “In New York, there are five bridges that cross the Hudson and they are using cameras to know what’s going on underneath — that’s the mature market for thermal security cameras, but there are other directions other people may not have thought of before.”

So how do thermal cameras differ from video cameras in a surveillance or perimeter protection application? The main difference is the video imaging problems they solve.

“The easiest way to understand why someone would buy a thermal camera is to understand what problems they solve that a regular video camera does not and that is darkness,” says Klink. “Thermal cameras see in darkness, so you don’t need any light. In an environment where surveillance is required at night you either need to put lights up, which costs money and you still have shadows.”

Light can also be a vexing problem for security integrators and installers.

“For example, light or sunrise and sunset or even a street light or car headlights when shone into a camera can be blinding for a video camera. Thermal cameras are impervious to that because they don’t look at light they look at heat, so vital imaging can be lost because a bright light blinded the camera,” says Klink.

Another video imaging problem thermal can solve is atmospheric occurrences ranging from smoke, which can reduce visibility, to light fog. It helps over long distances for coastal observation or across a river. Smog and particulate in the air can make it difficult to see; thermal energy punches through that murky environment.

Also, use of video analytics is increasingly important for outdoor perimeter security such as trip wires. The performance of video analytics really depends on how much contrast there is in the image produced by the video camera.

“Thermal cameras are black and white, which is good for software analytics. They want to see the image. Thermal cameras tend to be a good front end for analytics,” says Klink.

Non-traditional applications for thermal cameras include power companies — specifically electric power substations.

These are often remote sites and smaller than a city block — typically 200 m x 200 m. They are used for distribution of electricity to a neighborhood.

They typically contain large amounts of copper which with its high value has become a prime target for thieves. While the substations are fenced in, they are very vulnerable because they aren’t manned. Thieves have been badly hurt when they try and steal copper from these high voltage locations.

Hydro One is looking at thermal cameras to secure remote power substations.

“It’s not so much what is taken, but the cost to repair when the damage is done,” says Klink.

Thermal cameras are also becoming a tool for intelligent transportation systems — in some cases to control a signal light.

And big industrial complexes such as data centres are also starting to use thermal cameras or intrusion detection.

“Rooftops are a good way for criminals to get into a building. Once on top they are not seen as there is rarely any lighting present. Often it’s easier to get into a building from the top than the front,” says Klink. “You really can’t use a regular camera up there because they need extra light and are subject to shadows from air-conditioning units,” he explains.

Thermal cameras are also being used for alarm assessment in conjunction with other perimeter security technologies that might be used to detect breach of perimeter security such as buried fibre or fencing that incorporates detection when breached. Some of these perimeter technologies can be prone to false alarms and in the dark it’s not always clear if it’s a person or an animal causing the alarm. A thermal camera could help determine what was setting the alarm off.

“We have software that can interact between the two, which can get a picture and email  it to the monitoring station to determine the cause,” says Klink.

For microprocessor manufacturer Celestica which has plants in multiple locations in Asia, thermal cameras are not used for traditional security purposes — rather they are used as business continuity devices to monitor employees for potential flu outbreaks.

“In some sites where they have strong employee health and safety personnel they have taken it upon themselves to learn about best practices and obtain budget to implement these systems on their own at the site level,” says Tyson Johnson, Director of Global Security and Investigations with Celestica based in Toronto.

Celestica is not using thermal cameras for traditional security purposes at the moment but exclusively as a tool to make sure the workforce is safe from illness.

“We use metal detection for SIM cards and memory drives that might come out. Thermal doesn’t have a place in terms of security in terms of perimeter security we rely on lighting and fencing but not for thermal.”

“We have a site in Mexico, one in Thailand and one in Malaysia. They all have this type of camera in place to assist with screening on potential pandemic escalations, which is a great tool,” says Johnson.

“It’s just part of our blanket of business continuity,” he says.

“If we receive information that the World Heath Organization is reporting an increase in flu numbers in a particular part of the world we can really ramp up our system and have the guard force that implements the ins and outs of our employee base funnel them into one entrance and watch as they come in through the turnstiles. If someone appears more ‘red’ than anyone else they can be chosen for secondary screening.”

Johnson says Asian-based locations are much more up to speed on this type implementation perhaps because of the impact outbreaks have had over the years.
“Health and safety managers have been very switched into this technology and it’s one we’re looking at for our overall business continuity. It’s become part of the toolkit,” he says.

Some sites have one or two thermal cameras focused on the key entry points of the employee entrance.

“You don’t need many — they are monitored at the guard desk at the entrance. We ramp it up in the first escalation phase of a flu or pandemic. We would use that technology to screen and stage two would be everyone would have their temperature taken. It’s a tier one screening tool.”

Making sure production continues on a steady basis is critical to Celestica’s ability to meet it’s contracts with clients.

“If we dip 10-15 per cent on absenteeism it can hit the bottom line very quickly. Last year in Thailand where there were issues of unrest happening in Bangkok and curfews were in place it impacted our overnight shift so it was like losing an entire shift off operation. With pandemic we’re very careful to have screening that starts at the front gates,” says Johnson.

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