Test Drive: FLIR Thermal Cameras
by Security Electronics and Networks | @Articles Product Reviews | December 16, 2012, 8:00am AEDT
IT was instructive getting a look at FLIR’s thermal gear at the same time as seeing IR and white light systems. It gave us a good idea of what to expect from solutions like these in the real world. And where the FLIR solutions really impressed was with their enormous field of view and their superb capacity for intrusion detection at very long distances.
Sitting in the venue listening to FLIR Systems distribution manager Peter De Ieso running through some background of the company, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the FLIR equipment. As a child of the 80s, I’ve seen Predator, but as the demo went along it became clear that the whole business with the mud suit in that movie was quite ludicrous. There’s no way for a non-burrowing terrestrial mammal to hide from thermal imaging.
According to De Ieso, there are some myths about the IR industry and he says these include the fact that it’s very heavily regulated by the US State Department, it’s very expensive and it’s only for the military. Instead De Ieso says regulation of security grade equipment no longer applies and 55 per cent of FLIR’s sales are from the commercial sector.
“In addition, resolution is increasing and price is falling, so you can see which way the technology is headed,” he explains. “And there are a lot of clever people writing software that can help with applications of thermal imaging – in the security industry that’s video analytics.”
According to De Ieso, FLIR cameras and video analytics are a perfect match for a number of reasons. One is that the images presented work day and night, and in difficult/most weather conditions. De Ieso also points out, very correctly as the demo later shows, that the images are high contrast so if there’s a human intruder on a site, they stand out clearly and that makes it easier for IVA to recognise their presence.
“Our biggest application in the security industry is Thermal Fence,” De Ieso tells us. “You can have a physical fence associated with this system or not – in some cases it is not desirable or possible to have a physical barrier. Using Thermal Fence we can build no-go zones on land or on water. In fact the system is ideal for water where you can’t build a wall or install beams.”
“What the FLIR thermal camera does from the point of view of the observer is shows whatever is the hottest part of a scene in white on the display monitor and whatever is the coldest area as black,” De Ieso explains.
“Then using 256 shades of grey it creates a temperature image based on camera sensitivity – we call this temperature resolution. FLIR cameras are very sensitive. They can detect down to 50 millikelvin which is 0.05 degrees with an uncooled camera, while FLIR cooled cameras are sensitive to 30 millikelvin.
“IR and visible light cameras work on reflected light but when you get into the thermal world the IR energy coming off all atoms in a scene is what we detect. Mid waves are what cooled cameras focus on and long waves are what uncooled sensors pick up – and this latter includes FLIR security cameras. As a result, you don’t see sunlight or glare from headlights and as visible light doesn’t register, there’s no issue with backlight, bloom, glare and there’s no smearing.
“And the cameras can see through smoke so they are ideal for prisons and industrial applications. They can also see through dust in a mining environment, so there are safety applications. FLIR thermal cameras can also see through light fog. Taken together what these capabilities mean is that thermal imaging enhances situational awareness.”
But it’s really the actual performance of FLIR’s thermal imaging cameras and the Thermal Fence solution that impresses De Ieso’s message on me most. That’s because the performance of the FLIR cameras is very, very good indeed.
The demo scene is ideal to show the great power of thermal imaging cameras. In the first instance, we’re viewing images from an uncooled camera ‘looking’ all the way down the 368 metres of Hole One at the Parramatta Ryde Golf Club. It’s a long hole, with fairly close lines of mature gums on both sides, underneath them, deep shadows.
With the IR and white light we could not see far under the trees at all – into the first row with the IR but no further. The white light saw less still. But the thermal is something else again. It’s more expensive than supporting an analogue or HD camera with luminaries but when you absolutely, positively have to know if there’s an intruder out there and face recognition and clothing colour are less important than this knowledge, then thermal is simply the business.
“You don’t see sunlight or glare from headlights. Because visible light doesn’t register there’s no issue with backlight, bloom, no glare, no smearing.”
It’s not just the length of the field of detection, it’s the width. The viewable detection field covers 3 rows of trees on the right, 2 on the left and the grass under the rows of these gumtrees is clearly visible as a darker colour than the trees. An intruder would appear on this dark grass bright white, which is exactly what happens when without warning a couple of rather large drop-bears descend from a nearby tree and start cantering about the fairway. These bears are very detailed, in fact I can see the details of their Sasquatian ‘faces’ quite clearly in the 5MP photos I took of the 1080p screens displaying the images from the uncooled FLIR camera. As quickly as they came, the bears are gone.
Next, De Ieso starts working with system smarts.
“Setting up the thermal camera to create a no-go zone is a very simple operation,” he says. “All I’ve done is use a mouse to draw an area which is designated as a no-go zone and also made a thin line that represents a fence and if intruders cross it they generate an alarm.
“FLIR has an online tool called Raven that is used to design a Thermal Fence system and helps you to work out which cameras are required, shows the actual camera view and also gives you a pixel or target number. And using the FLIR software, as long as you keep that target number above 80, the server-based video analytics will be effective.”
According to De Ieso, it’s possible to have multiple no go-zone alarms in a number of ways. The alarms can be on the software and associated with a network attached box so these alarm zones you draw can be linked to a relay. Each I/O box has 6 relays so through relays you can create different And/Or functions.
“Ok, so I’ve created a thermal fence higher in the image – that’s the far end of Hole One – so when our intruders move into a particular area the system will generate an alarm,” he explains.
“The camera on the top is the cooled camera and we’re using this cooled camera to zoom in and have a close look at what’s out there after the alarm goes off,” De Ieso says.
We all look at the screen.
The portly drop bears suddenly break cover and as they cross over into the no-go zone, Thermal Fence goes into immediate alarm. The process is repeated and each time the intruders break into the alarm zone, they activate a siren. It should be appreciated that these sinister caniform intruders are a long way down the green – perhaps 200m away.
From my position 5 metres from the monitor I judge that the coverage of the entire scene with thermal is superior if you want intruder detection without details like colour. You get full appreciation of landforms. Tree trunks and branches are visible. And the depth and width of the field of view are unprecedented with thermal. I can see the trees at end of the fairway clearly.
There’s no chance anything could approach in any part of the field of view without being detected by an alert operator or by video analytics. Thermal simply looks through leaves and peers deep into shadows under wooded areas. This is a serious solution. As we zoom in on the intruders using the cooled camera someone asks if the zoom is digital or optical and De Ieso explains that it’s an optical zoom.
“FLIR’s cooled cameras have an optical zoom made out of Germanium – there is also a digital zoom that can be used to look deeper into zoomed scenes,” he says.
Using the cooled camera, De Ieso then pans around and zooms, searching for other forms of wildlife. While there’s nothing to be seen, we’re able to clearly see tree trunks, limbs and branches. In a recent demo in Queensland, we are told, possums were seen in trees at hundreds of metres.
“A nuisance alarm for us is something like a bird or a kangaroo, but importantly, the user or operator gets an image so they can verify the nuisance alarm in real time – that’s the advantage of Thermal Fence over other perimeter technologies.”
When De Ieso tells us that in trials FLIR Thermal Fence always gets detection in perimeter applications, it’s impossible not to agree with him. In my opinion, when it comes to serious intrusion detection on large sites, land or water, there’s simply nothing to compare with thermal.