See the Unseen

See the Unseen

The world of thermal imaging and how it applies to today’s modern security solutions

Never before has thermal imaging technology been as widely discussed as it is today. While unfortunate for all of us, COVID-19 has cast light onto various thermal scanning technologies available to help prevent the spread of coronavirus by detecting people who may have elevated body temperatures. And, like the California Gold Rush of 1848, dozens of new players – both manufacturers and distributors – are entering new territory for the first time.

This is not about that mad dash. Instead, let’s take a look at how the technology works, its origins, how the last decade has seen it commercialized for various security applications and where it can be used moving forward.

WARTIME TECHNOLOGY

So, like the Jeep and many other exciting innovations from World War II, modern thermal imaging was developed for military applications. Thermal sensors, and the cooling apparatuses they required, were so large that transporting them required tanks or planes. Technology improvements over the next 50 years made thermal devices easier to transport and less expensive.

Thermal imaging works because infrared radiation (or infrared light) exists everywhere as all objects above absolute zero emit heat signatures. This radiation is invisible to the naked eye and, simply put, thermal imaging cameras detect these light waves, processes them and then displays them as an image. The infrared light waves are captured by the camera, calculated with microbolometers and specific thermographic algorithms and become visible when outputted on a screen. The resolution of the image is dependent on a number of variables but, relative to selecting the correct camera for security needs, one of the key factors is the number of pixels for the image screen.

After previously providing thermal engineering for military and large-scale commercial use, my mission changed to finding more affordable ways to allow the world to “see the unseen”. By building smaller, lighter, high-powered thermal cameras priced for commercial and consumer use, we set out to reveal the world of energy that surrounds us. Doing so means providing highly useful information for solving everyday problems by detecting and visualizing heat.

WIDESPREAD ADOPTION

Until the last decade, the major historic deterrent to the widespread adoption of thermal imaging has been its lack of affordability. Today, however, there are several innovative and worldclass thermal imaging companies capable of manufacturing excellent products for a fraction of historical costs. But, the real value of thermal imaging is found within the data, how that information is used and how the technology’s affordable scalability has revealed so many other uses unimaginable only a few years ago.

For example, the industry has seen tremendous growth in the fire and rescue profession. Imagine being a firefighter and entering a darkened structured full of black smoke.

The human eye cannot see trapped human beings. The eye is completely unable to detect if a floor is about to collapse because the fire has made it structurally unsafe. And, after the fire is presumably extinguished, a firefighter cannot see a hot spot that remains somewhere in the building. But, a small, handheld thermal camera can detect all of this because it doesn’t see anything but heat. It can “see” through black smoke and distinguish the heat signature of flames from that of a human being. It can detect hot spots in the floor that’s ready to collapse or within a remaining wall that continues to smolder.

All of these applications are used by firefighters and manufacturers have found ways to make thermal imaging cameras so affordable that fire departments are finding ways to equip every one of their firefighters with them.

Other previously unforeseen applications can be found in the remote monitoring of electronic equipment. Imagine an elevator control bank within a large office building. Long before mechanical failure occurs and creates a potentially dangerous situation for passengers and repair professionals, the circuitry within the control system can deteriorate. By using thermal sensors and some basic integration, early irregular heat detection of potential circuitry malfunction can alert the elevator service team to contact a building management team before they even know there could be a costly – and potentially dangerous – problem.

APPLICATION MANAGEMENT

For the security management industry, these kinds of application are being identified every day. In fact, let’s examine how thermal imaging systems can be used to help make buildings safer for its occupants during the COVID-19 pandemic. First, it is important to note temperature screening products alone cannot diagnose or exclude diagnosis of COVID-19 or any other disease or condition. However, when used correctly, they are very fast and effective at providing an initial temperature assessment for business and institutions seeking to implement daily health checks as recommended by the CDC.

As an initial front line of defense, thermal imaging systems are an important singular component of a broader strategy to create healthier environments.

When developed to follow FDA guidelines, and when used as designed, thermal scanning products can quickly provide an initial assessment of a person’s body temperature while maintaining social distancing protocols. In an effort to provide safer environments for businesses and other gathering places, thermal imaging can detect elevated temperatures associated with potentially ill people and these systems are not easily spoofed like pyrometer-based kiosk solutions.

This implementation is already evolving, too. Through the use of APIs (Application Programing Interface) available with some thermal scanning systems, integrators can create specific integrated network capabilities using multiple thermal imaging units and temperature screening in one enterprise solution to include entry door access following scans, triggering access control and video management systems, sending pass/fail scan messages and alarm events, and flagging video when a scan occurs.

That is where thermal imaging stands today. While the industry’s focus has shifted this year to addressing public health and safety by helping control the spread of the pandemic, there’s much more in the works for the future. Soon, we’ll all get back to developing new innovations and product concepts for IoT applications, autonomously driven vehicles and exploring more “unseen” possibilities.

This article originally appeared in the November / December 2020 issue of Security Today.

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