Turning up the heat on thermal imaging

Turning up the heat on thermal imaging

Timothy Compston takes the temperature of the thermal imaging market and finds there is a lot of hot competition and some cool contenders for market share

The thermal camera landscape is changing fast as uncooled camera and sensor prices fall and more traditional video surveillance camera vendors add thermal to their portfolio. Not surprisingly as the technology has moved on there has been a blurring of the lines between the capabilities of uncooled models and the much more specialised and expensive cooled cameras which, historically, have tended to dominate in military and border security type deployments. In fact, with the price tag for cooled five times or more that of uncooled and the maintenance involved it is no wonder that uncooled is firmly in the thermal camera driving seat.

From an operational perspective, the beauty of course with thermal cameras is their ability to shore-up perimeter and area security in viewing conditions where conventional, visible light-based, solutions can struggle: “Not only does this mean that thermal imaging cameras can see in complete darkness, they also allow you to see clearly when obscurants like smoke, dust, light fog, and camouflaging foliage render your normal vision useless,” explains David Montague, sales director, EMEA, at FLIR.

Jon Cropley, principal analyst – video surveillance – at IHS Markit about the state of play of the thermal camera market he confirms that it has become a bit more mainstream in recent times: “Specialist vendors have been joined by broad-line vendors. So that is certainly one change in the market.” In terms of the uplift in demand for uncooled models, Cropley estimates that the global market grew by an impressive 15% in 2016 to just over US $320 million, with the corresponding figure for the Middle East is two percent higher at 17%. In 2016 we saw average prices come down by about 10%. Some of that is down to the movement in sensors from 17 microns to smaller pixel pitch sensors. At the same time companies have introduced entry level products as well that have more basic functionality.”

Cost of ownership

One major advantage with thermal that David Montague from FLIR is keen to single out is fewer unwanted alarms: “The thermal contrast is usually bigger than the visual contrast so the video analysis software can much more accurately distinguish between a branch moving in the wind, to name just one example, and a trespasser trying to enter the premises.”

For his part, Harris Chen, product marketing manager for thermal at Hikvision emphasises the cost of ownership benefits: “Thermal imaging works without any illumination for detection with no need for expensive light installations. Also, thermal imaging works with longer detection ranges than traditional CCTV, saving installation costs as fewer cameras and poles are needed.”

Asking Chen why, in his view, thermal cameras are such a good option for perimeter security he reiterates the point that even in the darkest areas, that traditional cameras cannot see, a thermal camera can pick-up movement and give security teams eyes on objects, vehicles, and intruders: “Combined with VCA [Video Content Analysis] technologies like line crossing and intrusion detection alarms these can really provide a comprehensive security solution.”

Oil and Gas

In the Middle East – and elsewhere – the oil and gas industry is of course a major user of thermal cameras as Darren Alder, divisional director – oil and gas – at Synectics, explains: “Usually distance is the main advantage with thermal from a security detection, threat activity, point of view for our oil and gas customers.” Alder says that, interestingly, Synectics has supplied onshore projects, recently, with zero lighting around the perimeter where thermal was the ideal fit: “They have made use of fixed thermal cameras all the way round and some longer range PTZs.”

In terms of whether it makes sense to have a conventional optical camera combined with thermal in the same camera station, Alder believes that this is definitely the way to go: “I would say yes because the additional cost of having a standard camera in there is negligible so you get the best of all worlds. Depending on the light level and the time of day you can switch between the two or both images from the same camera can be viewed simultaneously.”

Cooled still however remains a niche market. Ashley Wyton, international sales manager at 360 Vision Technology – a UK manufacturer of surveillance cameras like the Predator which include thermal versions says: “This is down to the fact that the primary technology even to buy it in the first instance is expensive so it is reserved for larger projects where you can outweigh the operational requirements against price. Oil companies are looking to deploy more uncooled thermal cameras to replace one cooled thermal camera on pipelines for example.”

Given that 360 Vision Technology’s cameras tend to feature several technologies I ask Wyton where thermal fits into the overall spectrum here: “It is a perfect fit for radar. The reason for that is that you are reliant on the radar to give you your 360 degrees of detection and then the camera in all weather conditions – day or night – can verify that object, that alarm target.” Wyton also says that 360 Vision Technology combines thermal with HD cameras to detect at longer ranges.

On the question of resolution, Wyton recalls that when 360 Vision Technology started offering thermal solutions 10 years ago it was selling cameras with a 160 x 120 resolution: “320 x 240 then became the industry standard at the right price point and that has now shifted again into 640 x 512.”

Lucrative market

Interestingly many vendors, outside the realm of the longstanding thermal specialists, are looking to stake their claim to the lucrative security market for thermal cameras. A case in point is Bosch which showcased its latest Dinion IP thermal 8000 camera model, with built-in IVA (Intelligent Video Analytics) at Intersec 2017. Pieter van de Looveren, senior manager, global marketing communications – video systems, at Bosch says that the vendor has been transitioning its thermal product line from analogue thermal technology into the IP world.

Looking at some emerging applications for thermal cameras, in the retail sector shoplifters are being caught in the sights of a new tool in the battle against the criminals. Based on thermal images provided by FLIR’s FC-Series R radiometric camera, Nexo Group’s xPredator system identifies suspicious heat patterns on shoppers that may indicate the presence of hidden, stolen, products.

Given the current dynamics of the thermal camera market the future of this technology seems bright and we can expect to see even more uncooled models being rolled out by vendors in the year ahead. Harris Chen, product marketing manager for thermal products at Hikvision says that thermal imaging will develop towards higher definition and greater intelligence: “Thermal products of 640 x 512 resolution will be much more popular in the fields of security, industrial temperature measurement and other industries.” Chen adds that this greater image detail will provide a further boost to intelligent analysis applications such as perimeter protection, smoke and fire detection, temperature measurement, ship detection and bi-spectrum smart tracking.