The Home Turf

Flexibility and performance are part of the home-field advantage

Affordable, high-performance thermal security cameras have revolutionized the video security industry. Their flexibility, performance and low total cost of ownership have made them viable security imaging solutions for a broader range of applications than ever imagined.

Case in point: Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, is now using thermal security cameras to look after its newly renovated football field. The 28-year-old sod was removed, a new drainage system was installed and new grass was laid in early 2009. The renovation took approximately five months to complete and cost more than $1 million. University administrators and campus police turned to thermal security cameras to safeguard this significant investment in their state-of-the-art facility.

Securing the Home Field

Visible-light cameras quickly proved to be an imperfect solution. At night, large facilities went undersecured because conventional CCTV cameras—even ones purporting to be low-light models—need an outside source of illumination if they're going to create an image after dark.

This exposes one of the cameras' primary tactical limitations—namely that they can't generate images of intruders beyond the range of their illumination source. This typically limits their effectiveness to a few hundred feet, when the environment may require surveillance capability that stretches for miles.

The threats to the field at BYU's LaVell Edwards Stadium range from thrill-seeking trespassers jumping the fence to access the field after hours, to low-frequency, high-impact vandalism perpetrated by rival fans or other ill-intentioned trespassers.

Naturally, the answer to the field's security wasn't as simple as locking down the stadium. BYU had been looking for a viable detection method for several years. The job of keeping trespassers off the field was complicated by the stadium being open to the public during daylight hours. Officials also needed to secure the facility's perimeter but keep the field itself accessible to maintenance crews and groundskeepers.

The task of securing the field fell to BYU's campus police. As part of their process for determining the best security technology to use, they temporarily installed an SR-35 thermal security camera from FLIR Systems on a tripod in the stadium press box.

"We resolved three trespasses in the first week," said Sgt. Wayne Beck, security systems coordinator for the BYU campus police. "It's a sure-fire way of catching people."

After determining that a mix of thermal security cameras would provide 24/7 imaging quality and range performance, Beck and the BYU team integrated the camera's video outputs onto their existing security network and tied everything together with a video analytics package.

The analytics allows operators to set up pre-determined alarm areas that are active at different times of the day. For instance, during daylight hours, the perimeter and stands are open, and maintenance crews can access the field. Later in the afternoon, the stands are open, but access to the field is closed and the field itself is alarmed. When school officials close the stadium for the day, they activate the automated surveillance and alarm system, which encompasses the entire facility.

If human activity is detected in a restricted zone during any of these periods, alarms are triggered that alert campus police to respond accordingly. Once command center staff receive an alarm, police dispatchers send officers to the scene. Meanwhile, dispatchers can bring up and direct optical PTZ cameras to the violated area to gather more tactical information for the responding officers.

The Thermal Advantage

Thermal imaging camerasThermal cameras let security professionals see intruders clearly in total darkness, smoke, dust and light fog. No matter what they need to see, or where they need to see it from, thermal cameras keep law enforcement and security officers seeing clearly.

The tactical and practical advantages of thermal cameras for nighttime security imaging have been known for years. Their downside—until recently— has been that they were more expensive, requiring long budgetary intervals between acquisitions.

But the last few years have seen the cost of high-quality thermal security cameras come down dramatically, greatly expanding their use around the security industry in general, and in homeland security and critical infrastructure security applications in particular.

The fact that the acquisition cost of thermal security cameras is 10 percent of what is was a few years ago is only part of the story. It doesn't take into account three important advantages of thermal cameras for homeland security applications: they don't require any support infrastructure, they provide true 24/7 operational imaging and they act as force multipliers, dramatically improving operational response and efficiency.

Support Infrastructure

The costs involved in the design, installation, operation and upkeep of lighting towers and illuminators quickly outstrip the acquisition cost of a network of thermal security cameras. Because they're not dependent on any visible light, thermal security cameras don't need auxiliary lighting to work, so they can provide effective virtual perimeters for a fraction of the cost of visible-light imagers.

Conventional CCTV cameras need an outside source of illumination to create an image after the sun sets, leaving them with built-in economic and tactical limitations. Obviously, their main tactical limitation is that they can't generate images of intruders or targets beyond the range of their illumination source.

24/7 Video Security Coverage

Thermal security cameras let people see what their eyes can't—invisible heat radiation emitted by all objects regardless of lighting conditions. Everything we encounter in daily life creates heat energy, called a heat signature, that thermal cameras can see clearly, detecting the minute temperature differences between objects, and turning them into video that displays on almost any TV monitor.

Because they see heat, not light, thermal cameras are effective law enforcement tools in any environment. They can easily detect intruders and other potential hazards in any weather pattern or light level. Cameras that create images based on visible light, like conventional CCTV and illuminated cameras, have the advantage of creating images that are familiar and easy to interpret. Unfortunately, the ability of a given detector—be it in an eyeball or a camera—to create these images relates directly to the amount of light available.

Another limitation of cameras that create images from reflected visible light is contrast. Just like the human eye, these cameras create better images if the object they are looking for has lots of contrast compared to its background.

Because thermal cameras make pictures from heat, not light, and have nothing to do with sensing reflected visible-light energy, thermal cameras don't suffer from the limitations of standard CCTV and illuminated cameras.

Not only does everything have a heat signature, but these heat signatures create their own contrast, so the thermal energy seen by thermal cameras generally creates a better image at night than during the day. They work just fine during the day—as long as there is some temperature contrast between an object and its background.

An important tactical distinction to understand is that thermal cameras can't identify suspected criminals and terrorists; they detect the presence of people in restricted or suspect areas and help operators assess the tactical situation and respond accordingly. Because no one can hide their heat, thermal security cameras are the best tools officers and agents can use to know how many intruders they're facing and, consequently, determine how many officers or agents are needed to respond to the threat.

Force Multiplier

Thermal security cameras act as a force multiplier, allowing law enforcement and security operators to react more effectively—responding to threats with the appropriate force and using agency resources more efficiently.

For instance, thermal security cameras have been widely adopted as the imaging technology of choice to answer federal regulations requiring unbroken video surveillance coverage such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's requirement that nuclear facilities provide continuous 24-hour surveillance, observation and monitoring of perimeter and control areas. They have become an integral part of the delay, detect and respond strategy; their increased detection range gives security forces more time to respond, contain, and neutralize adversaries before they can access or damage nuclear materials or facilities.

Because of their high-contrast video output, security professionals have found that thermal security cameras work well with video analytics, providing more reliable alarming with fewer false reports than visible-light cameras, even during the day.

From border security to surveillance around industrial facilities and campuses, security professionals are deploying thermal cameras in a array of applications to provide true 24-hour video surveillance coverage of critical areas.

As the cost of thermal security technology continues to decline and as cameras themselves get smaller, applications for this technology will continue to grow. One of the growing applications for thermal security cameras is in handheld and vehicle-mounted devices, giving law enforcement officers and other security professionals the ability to take the technology with them wherever they go.

Thermal security cameras offer the best 24/7 imaging range performance available. They are easily networked and work better with video analytics packages than other low-light imaging solutions. They come in a variety of technologies and configurations, providing a solution for any high-security installation or border. Finally, they are inexpensive to operate, they require no auxiliary lighting infrastructure and their acquisition costs are projected to continue their downward trend, creating the "perfect storm" of affordability and return on investment.


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