New applications for thermal imaging devices around the world – Oct 2018

October 01, 2018

In this blog post we will cover highlights of the latest news regarding thermal imagers, taking us from traditional military applications, through industrial applications, and all the way to Yellowstone National Park.

Thermal imaging systems and military applications go a long way back. Military preparedness is predicated on situational awareness, irrespective of lighting conditions. This has fueled extensive research and development initiatives in the thermal imaging industry over the years. Besides for military applications, the thermal imaging industry has also displayed tremendous growth vis-à-vis commercial applications. This military-grade tech has a place in non-military applications too.

One such example can be found in recent thermal imaging footage that was used to film a pack of leopards in the BBC series Planet Earth. The creators of the series used highly sensitive thermal imaging cameras to acquire crisp images of the pack hunting at night. The same thermal system is now being used as part of an upgrade project for military tanks in the UK. The upgraded Challenger II tanks will now have the ability to operate at night without being hampered by external lighting conditions. This presents the UK military with a dramatic advantage for armored vehicles in urban warfare situations.

The fact of the matter is that thermal imaging cameras are gaining mass market appeal. This is helping to drive down the prices of these devices. Economies of scale allow for the mass production of this specialized equipment. As a result, prices are dropping in tandem with the relative sizes of these thermal imaging cameras. Military forces around the world can now benefit from the reduced costs of these devices. This virtually assures higher adoption rates and increased distribution networks. Barely 10 years ago, thermal imaging cameras were a luxury on armored military vehicles.

A recent report from the Syrian front indicates that security forces which reached the town of Quneitra were able to allocate a large cache of military equipment left behind by rebel forces that were forced to evacuate the area. One surprising discovery was a significant amount of thermal imaging personal vision systems that were used by rebels. This discovery demonstrates the importance of thermal imaging on today’s battleground, as well as the ability to obtain such devices by guerilla groups which typically operate in smaller numbers and with smaller budgets.

As thermal cameras are becoming more frequently used for commercial and civilian applications, the benefits of visualizing infrared radiation in the industry is being implemented in new and innovative ways around the world. In one such application, thermal microscopes are being used to inspect silicone wafers. The semiconductor industry is predicated on complex procedures of critical importance when it comes to the integrity of silicone wafers being used as the base for electronic chips. A thermal microscope uses Short Wave Infrared (SWIR) detectors with a high frame rate to inspect semiconductor material for defects prior to slicing as well as identifying cracks in circuits after the process is complete. The fact that thermal cameras can identify wavelengths that are close to visible light also makes it applicable to other industries such as medical, recycling facilities, and agricultural inspections of crops and soil.

When it comes to aerial surveillance of grounds, a recent article described in detail the method in which thermal imagery produced by a satellite helps researchers map Yellowstone National Park.  Thermal analysis of the diverse terrain in the park helps researchers gain insights regarding the processes of heating and cooling cycles. The height of the observation allows for a wide area to be covered in a single frame, and more data to be analyzed simultaneously. While land trails and underground thermal pools are warmer in the image, snowy peaks and frozen lakes appear cold in these images. By combining high altitude satellite thermal images that provide high level data of the park, with lower altitude images generated by aircraft and drones, researchers can now generate a full-scale thermal map of the park and use the data to predict phenomena that can be transcribed into actionable processes in the future.