Thermal or infrared imaging, also referred to as thermography, is a given for high-tech surveillance where low light, darkness and weather conditions are a factor. In addition, this workhorse of perimeter facility detection and protection addresses a number of other emerging markets that extend the range of its applicability.

Originally deployed by the government, the use of thermal imaging in military and covert applications fits well with current Department of Homeland Security directives, critical infrastructure protection and border patrol. It works in no light and adverse weather conditions and can see through foliage while providing long-range detection.

Thermal vs. infrared illumination

The technology should not be confused with infrared illumination. Thermal/infrared imaging (sometimes used interchangeably) is the production of noncontact infrared or “heat” pictures from which temperature measurements can be made. In thermal imaging, the heat-sensing capabilities separates the objects from the background. Typically, the image produced is black and white, where the hotter objects are whiter and the cooler objects are darker.

Infrared illuminators enhance the illumination in a scene to be able to detect images in low-light situations. Unfortunately, adding light is not always advisable, especially in covert surveillance.

According to Sharon Roberts, strategic market analysis manager for L-3 Communications Infrared Products, Dallas, some special tactical advantages of thermal imaging security cameras include the following characteristics. Thermal imagers:

  • Highlight things defenders are looking for—people, property and vehicles
  • Work equally well in daylight or in total darkness
  • Are weather-compatible and can see through haze, dust, smoke and certain types of fog, smog, rain or snow—a unique characteristic
  • Are not blinded by direct lights
  • Cannot be detected

“As the threat of terrorist activities continues, the U.S. government is continually looking for ways to increase the security at sites where it would be possible to do mass harm,” said Roberts. “In the dark of night, no other critical infrastructure security surveillance technology performs as well as thermal imaging in detecting intrusions and security breaches in shadowed corners or in dark areas. The heat-sensing capabilities of thermal imaging creates images where people and vehicles stand out in contrast to the background because of the temperature differences between the objects and the scene. Therefore, to the eye, it is much easier to visibly detect security threats in the darkness of night with thermal imaging.”

Security and then some

FLIR Systems Inc., Portland, Ore., recently announced it will provide 14 thermal imaging cameras at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport and William P. Hobby Airport as part of a new comprehensive security system.

The thermal imaging cameras will be integrated with the airports’ video processing and radar surveillance systems and will provide coverage in areas where ground-based radar is obstructed by buildings or other objects. The system will be linked to a geospatial map interface, providing high-resolution infrared imagery to aid in perimeter intrusion assessment.

According to FLIR spokesperson Virginia Reynolds, thermal imaging can provide industrial security and new maintenance opportunities for electrical contractors.

“FLIR’s infrared cameras provide maintenance personnel with accurate thermal information necessary to make critical decisions about equipment repair, replacement, and efficient plant operations,” she said.

In security and surveillance, FLIR cameras are used in airports, border patrol, law enforcement, and government or public facilities. But in industrial security applications, FLIR’s InfraCAM is used in electrical applications by plant managers, electricians or utility-industry substation owners.

By detecting anomalies invisible to the naked eye, thermography allows corrective action before costly system failures occur. Portable infrared imaging systems can scan equipment and structures and then instantly convert the thermal images to visible pictures for quantitative temperature analysis.

In this way, infrared thermography is a way of maintaining predictive maintenance or condition monitoring of equipment. This type of surveillance keeps contractors and facilities managers up-to-date on how well electrical equipment is working.

Reynolds said implementing a maintenance plan with infrared is a great way to increase system reliability by locating and correcting failing components before they cause interruptions in service. Infrared cameras allow an evaluation of a variety of plant and substation equipment.

“Thermal imaging has evolved into one of the most valuable diagnostic tools for electrical maintenance,” she said.

Think outside the box. Thermal imaging provides robust security surveillance and critical protection of electrical systems as well as perhaps a new niche for electrical contractors. EC

O’MARA is the president of DLO Communications in Park Ridge, Ill., specializing in low-voltage. She can be reached at 847.384.1916 or domara@earthlink.net.