Questions and Answers From the Top

Thermal security cameras -- cameras that make pictures and video from heat, not light -- are affordable, available and becoming a must-have technology for the serious security professional. To learn more about this exciting technology, Security Products sat down with Andy Teich, president of FLIR Systems’ Commercial Vision Systems division.

Q. We’re seeing more security teams installing thermal security cameras. What accounts for this rapid growth?

A. The awareness of thermal cameras has been building steadily over the past four years to the point that now most integrators and users of video security networks understand the benefits of thermal imaging. Having crisp video images in total darkness, seeing through smoke and other atmospheric conditions that blind daylight cameras or dealing with severely backlit situations are just some of the reasons why thermal is the best imaging solution.

FLIR has worked hard to increase awareness among security professionals about how important thermal cameras are in a video security network. Thermal cameras can do things that no other imaging technology can, and FLIR is driving down the cost of thermal cameras dramatically due to the high volume of cameras we build for the wide range of markets we serve. Over the last four years, FLIR has transformed thermal imaging from an expensive military technology into a highvolume commercial product.

Thermal cameras integrate seamlessly into today’s common video security networks, so they are now standard video security appliances operating on conventional control platforms instead of devices that require custom interfaces.

Q. What are some security applications for thermal cameras?

A. The list of applications is almost endless. Most thermal security cameras are used for outdoor perimeter surveillance where adding lights is too costly, too invasive or impractical, but they’re also used indoors as a safety and security tool.

The range of users of thermal cameras also is extensive, from industrial and commercial companies with large factory or campus facilities, to municipal and government entities, to residential homeowners. For example, lighting a home or facility that borders an expanse of water is a practical impossibility, so security operators can use thermal cameras for video coverage, day and night.

In addition, thermal cameras can see much farther than conventional daylight cameras because they are not affected by haze and atmospheric pollution. For example, our cameras are deployed at hundreds of border locations around the world. In some cases, the systems are used to detect activity at ranges of 10 miles or more. Thermal cameras are much better at discriminating people from animals and background clutter since they rely on heat. This proves to be a powerful advantage when video analytics is deployed as part of the system solution.

Thermal cameras also are ideally suited for indoor use. In addition to being able to see when the lights go out, thermal cameras can see clearly through dense smoke that blinds daylight cameras. Industrial and municipal customers are installing thermal cameras in buildings so security and emergency personnel can see people or objects through smoke in case of fire. We’re also seeing an increase in suburban homeowners using thermal cameras to look down long unlit driveways or to watch over wooded areas around their home. Many rural property owners use thermal cameras to watch over their horse barns or other high-value livestock paddocks because a single thermal camera works both day and night.

Q.What technology do you relate thermal imaging to, as far as consumer adoption is concerned?

A. It is likely that thermal imaging will follow the same adoption curve as GPS technology. GPS technology was developed for the military, much like thermal imaging technology. It then moved into the industrial market as prices came down and surveyors started to use the technology.

Now, GPS units can be found in cars, on boats and with pedestrians. GPS technology answers the question “Where am I?”; thermal imaging answers the question “What’s out there?” This is a question that security professionals want to answer as they transform their video security system into an around-the-clock protection system.

Q.Prices seem to be coming down. Where are they today, and where are they headed?

A.Thermal cameras are available today for less than $3,000. FLIR even has thermal cameras configured in domes for indoor use. Where it’s going? You’ll have to watch and see, but our twoword mantra is “Infrared Everywhere.”

That is, we want to have a thermal imager in every home, car, boat, business and aircraft. For that to happen, awareness will have to increase and prices will have to decrease further.

Q.Where do you think this technology will take hold first?

A. Thermal cameras have been in steady use since the mid 1960s, and they’ve already taken hold in the border security, industrial security, home inspection, predictive maintenance and scientific markets, in addition to the military. As far as the broader consumer applications are concerned, we expect perimeter security and transportation to be the big markets.

Q.Where do you see this technology in five years?

A. We expect thermal cameras to be as ubiquitous as the digital camera. As prices continue to drop, more customers will be using this technology. Since FLIR cameras don’t require any light at all, you can imagine how many security installations around the world can benefit from this technology.

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Security Today.

About the Author

Andy Teich is the president of FLIR Systems’ Commercial Divsion Systems division.

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