Thermal cameras move into commercial use, in some instances

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Andy Teich, CEO of FLIR Communications, likes to compare the evolution of thermal camera technology to GPS systems. Slowly but surely, the application of thermal cameras has followed the history of GPS, from a military genesis to dual use, before expanding to the commercial market and commoditization.

“Thermal cameras go into the same phases, but slower than GPS,” said Teich, whose Oregon-based company pioneered the cameras’ dual-use application back in the 1960s.

Security industry integrators have been offering thermal camera and infrared technology to their end customers as a matter of routine for the last two to four years. The price tags have dropped from the $10,000-$15,000 range to the $2,000 to $4,000 range. And still, the wonders and limitations of these devices leave experts struggling to determine how far this evolution will go, or how wide the market will expand.

“A lot of people think, ‘That’s government stuff, that’s spy stuff,’” says Matt Lackrone of NetWatch, an integrator based in Springfield, Missouri.

Thermal cameras capture images using infrared radiation, whereas conventional cameras use existing light. “The key difference is that IR is the active technology,” says Teich. 

The higher the temperature of an object (human or otherwise), the more infrared radiation emerges. Thermal cameras turn this heat into images. The trade-off is that while thermal cameras can expand the reach of detection, they are better suited for just that—detection, not identification.

For military applications, thermal cameras have been a no-brainer for half a century. Detection is essential to any military operation. But it took awhile for the technology to move from military to commercial use. For defense contractors, “Sometimes their military DNA gets in the way,” said Teich, who predicted a year ago that thermal cameras will eventually make a significant impact in the mainstream residential market. In the mid-1990s, Teich notes, GPS systems existed only in high-end German cars at an average cost of $2,400. Now they seem to be in everyone's car for less than 10 percent of that price. "That same sort of thing will happen" with thermal cameras, Teich says.

“(The cameras) detect people and objects from a distance, especially airplanes and especially at night,” said Daniel Ferm of Axis Communications, a competitor to FLIR in the thermal camera market. The U.S. military expanded the use of infrared technology as it became more active in border patrol operations, during which 24-7 coverage and nighttime applications are in play, said Ferm, who works out of Axis’ Sweden offices.

In recent years, technological improvements as well as the basic laws of supply and demand have lowered the cost while increasing the availability of thermal cameras for private companies that want, literally, a far-reaching security package, beginning with perimeter security.

Nirmal Chudgar, director of systems integration at Federal Signal Corp., based in Oak Brook, Ill., says one of his customers has a plant that abuts a river as well as four state borders. When somebody jumps off a nearby platform into the river, Chudgar’s company has an active interest in detection. Its thermal cameras handle the job nicely.

“What we cannot see with the human eyes, thermal can,” he said.

Chudgar, however, is unambiguous about the technology’s limitations. “It’s about detection, not recognition,” he said. “It’s not a substitute for existing cameras. It’s a technological add-on.”

The military still demands “the brunt of business,“ according to Matt Lackrone. But just as the military has led the way for historic technological advances in transportation and computers, it has opened the eyes of corporate leaders looking for a market niche in the security industry. Lackrone points out that shipyards and electric utility substations are two of the most obvious industrial platforms for thermal cameras.

“An integrator like me, in the dead center of the United States … We can take the same technology used for shipyards, shooting (cameras) over a body of water, and use it for an electrical substation, where there’s not much going on in a field of cows, and get a feel for detection,” Lackrone said. “You’re covering a much wider space (with thermal cameras) than even the low-light or day-night cameras.”

“We’re very commercial oriented,” Lackrone said of his company, noting that municipalities and school districts also comprise his customer list. “We have very few residential customers.”

Commercial use for thermal cameras also extends to construction sites, manufacturing plants, fire stations, oil and gas companies, and solar power plants, according to Erik Mikkelson, president of LUCIT Online Security, based in Ontario, Canada. In some cases, Mikkelson says, the technology can replace a security guard, or at the very least supplement that service.

To a limited extent, the cameras have crept into the residential realm and the consumer “commodities” market, experts say. But here is where the market limitations of thermal cameras get exposed, at least for now. Both Mikkelson and Lackrone acknowledge that many customers expressing interest in thermal cameras for personal use seem dazzled by “the cool factor.”

Lackrone said, “People will call me and say something like, ‘I’ve got a farm. And a plane. And some cattle. I don’t live there but I check up on the place every two or three weeks. The place does not have Internet, and there’s no phone line.’ And I say, ‘You’re killing me.’”

He said, “If you start stacking the technology in these cases (with satellite and Internet feeds supplementing the thermal cameras), you can do some cross-line detection for well under $10,000.”

Mikkelson said, “If you have a big house on the water, you might want a high-powered camera looking out over the water for boats. It’s cool; it’s bells and whistles. From a security standpoint, you might be looking to protect your millions of dollars in assets.”

Integrators are not pushing thermal cameras onto residential customers or the owners of luxury cars and boats. In fact, despite the plummeting price and improved technology, they are still in the introductory phase of the developing commercial market, where customers are not asking specifically for thermal cameras; they’re offered when an integrator perceives a solution.

“We would suggest it,” said Chudgar. “If a customer is savvy enough to ask for it, we will respond.” That does not happen often, he noted.

Daniel Ferm of Axis went even further, saying, “Some integrators forget to offer it as a solution. The customers don’t ask. Most people don’t have that kind of technology background.’’

Big companies, heavy industry, government operations and large events with unique problems (the Little League World Series organizers requested thermal cameras for added protection in a residential neighborhood), all have a place for infrared technology. But in terms of market growth, thermal cameras may be ahead of their time, or the answer without a question.

“It takes a little bit of thinking,” said Daniel Ferm. “It’s like, ‘What kind of problem can we solve with this?’”