Turn Up the Heat: Thermal Video Surveillance Technology

Published On
Oct 15, 2017

Outdoor video security is tricky for security specifications because variables, such as topography, weather and lighting, can affect accuracy and catch performance. However, it’s one of the most important starting points for effective intrusion detection and is central to physical security’s strategy to deter, detect, delay and deny. 


Specifications traditionally deploy multiple cameras for blanket, overlapping coverage of an area to enhance detection, but more cameras have actually created other problems. According to Cisco’s “Visual Networking Index: Forecast and Methodology, 2016–2021,” it would take an individual more than 5 million years to watch all the video that will cross global IP networks each month in 2021; every second, a million minutes of video content will cross the network. Globally, IP video traffic will be 82 percent of all consumer internet traffic by 2021, up from 73 percent in 2016, according to the report. 


That’s a lot of video, and, without the right technology, it can be impossible to watch, interpret, manage and archive.


Visible light versus thermal imagery


Conventional video systems use visible light and those with software analytics establish rules of detection to analyze streams and trigger alarms when movement outside the norm happens, then recording activity or sending notification for live viewing at command and control centers or on mobile devices. While analytics have assisted in assessing and evaluating actual alarms, they are not always reliable when paired with visible cameras, due to the high number of nuisance alerts triggered by reflections, poor weather, headlights passing through the scene, or other lighting issues that are common to the outdoors (such as not enough light). For this reason, the process of using visible light cameras becomes passive and ultimately relies on human assessment to figure out if something out of the ordinary is happening. 


That’s where smart thermal-imaging video surveillance comes in. With thermal’s long-wave infrared, more reliable detection occurs regardless of the lighting situation, and it supplies the information needed to make a proactive, informed response about how to handle a security breach.


Smart thermal video security accurately discriminates among objects when rain, humidity or other conditions have reduced the temperature differences across a scene. Unlike visible-light cameras, which capture direct and reflected light from a scene to form a picture, thermal cameras generate images based on the differing levels of heat emitted from various objects in the scene. It’s the perfect human detector that provides quantifiable detail—such as if the person in the scene is holding an umbrella or a gun—while filtering out conditions that may lead to false alarms and poor alarm performance. 


Opening new markets


A thermal camera is purpose-built for intrusion detection, using sophisticated software and rapid image processing to drill down into camera scenes. Thermal imagery cameras are seeing rapid adoption in markets beyond high-risk, government or critical infrastructure, due to dramatically increased performance, lower costs, accuracy, improved analytics and nuisance-alarm reduction. 


“The technology today aligns with the needs of many different markets,” said John Romanowich, CEO and founder of SightLogix Inc., Princeton, N.J. “The performance is there; the price is there. It’s at the tipping point of mainstream adoption for outdoor asset protection.”


Since it came to market some 10-plus years ago, thermal imaging has improved with better sensitivity at a much lower cost, about one-tenth the price of a camera in the past. High-sensitivity imagers can “see” objects with a lower heat signature, such as those that are farther away. Thermal imaging sensors detect body heat up to one-third of a mile away, and a single camera can protect the area the size of a football field. 


“The key advantage of thermal imaging cameras is that they provide the most effective 24-hour surveillance, producing clear images even in complete darkness, fog, foliage and other environment obscurants,” said John Distelzweig, general manager at FLIR Systems, Wilsonville, Ore. “In the past, thermal imaging was a commercially developed, military qualified technology. However, as a result of product innovation from market leaders, the price of thermal cameras is now comparable to visible cameras.” 


Visible light video security systems have a tendency to generate nuisance alerts. They are smart enough to detect moving objects in the video stream under ideal conditions, but cannot reliably detect intruders consistently throughout a normal day. Nuisance and false alarms stress owners and monitoring operations, exacerbate complacency in watching video streams, and hamper reliability in alarm detection and response.


“Smart cameras, properly deployed, focus people’s attention precisely where and exactly when an intrusion occurs and that, coupled with dramatically lower cost, is moving more commercial users to thermal imagery,” Romanowich said. “Thermal is rock-solid for detecting intruders better than visible light cameras.” 


He equates today’s thermal imaging to a reliable alert that an alarm requires prompt attention.


“It provides real-time information that there’s something that needs to be looked at immediately, allows the user to assess the potential threat and alerts security personnel when a threat is credible,” Romanowich said. “Georegistered thermal cameras can automatically position pan-tilt-zoom to zoom in for a closer look at the exact point of intrusion. It turns what was passive surveillance into active threat detection.”


Thermal imaging

Monitoring video security


In addition to more widespread use of the technology in outdoor environments with assets to protect such as storage depots, car lots, scrap yards and other nonmission-critical environments, the breakthrough application for smart thermal video security is in central-station monitoring. 


Smart thermal video security, with its virtual absence of nuisance alerts, is the first surveillance and security technology accurate enough for central-station monitoring of outdoor areas, versus maintaining a staff of response personnel or monitoring specialists on location.


“When it comes to protecting critical infrastructure, one of the new integrations we’re seeing is thermal cameras integrated with radar solutions,” Distelzweig said. “When deployed together, the solution provides unparalleled situational awareness beyond the perimeter, identifying threats quickly and enabling central station staff to respond before a threat reaches the fence line.”


“We expect rapid growth in the number of outdoor sites using thermal video security,” said Chris Brown, vice president, Central Stations, SureView Systems, Tampa, Fla.


SureView Systems makes a vendor-neutral software platform called IMMIX CS for the video and event-based monitoring market. The company’s software is designed to improve management and response to security events through an intuitive, easy-to-use software integration platform for alarm signals. 


“One of the biggest expenses in central station monitoring is labor—making calls and dispatching police,” he said. “When you can deliver a precise signal or threat, you reduce false-alarm traffic. Thermal imaging is so critical to accurate detection. It detects real threats and anomalies in an outside area. There’s a huge market to protect outside assets. Delivering a color image to the operator while using thermal behind the scenes to do detection is really a great way to deliver actionable intelligence.”


Brown said the detection software suite on the thermal imaging video camera makes the call that there is an actual threat based on parameters set up on the device.


“The key is its accuracy,” he said. “Thermal is strategically focused on what it needs to detect. The operator picks up the signal and gets the clip that the camera took and what threat actually happened. Once that threat is delivered to the operator we hold it in a screen box with a 10-second recording on a loop, with a live view of that camera as well. It can also be integrated through software with other products, like audio devices near the camera.”


Thermal-imaging video systems may soon make their way to residential and consumer markets.


“The technology is poised for deployment in someone’s backyard,” he said. “It extends perimeter protection beyond the walls of the home and lets you know someone’s there without them being physically in the yard. Smart thermal video technology gives security professionals a tool for creating the outdoor equivalent of a burglar alarm.”


About the Author

Deborah L. O'Mara

Freelance Writer

O’MARA writes about security, life safety and systems integration and is managing director of DLO Communications. She can be reached at dlocommunications@gmail.com or 773.414.3573.

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