The History of Thermal Imaging Innovation
The first infrared line scanner appeared in 1947 – one image took an hour to produce – but real technological advancements have meant that these cameras now serve many useful purposes but none more important than those that help save lives.
Over the years, the capability of thermal cameras has advanced beyond the expectations of those who first worked on this technology. Originally developed by the military for use in combat situations, it was once an expensive technology with limited application in civilian situations. Modern thermal imaging capability originates from the development of heat-seeking missile technology in the 1970s. The British Navy first developed its use for managing shipboard fires and it was then adopted by the US Navy and the technology started appearing in many other military applications such as weapons sights and locating the enemy in hidden spaces.
Scott Safety identified an opportunity to exploit the technology for civilian use and by the late 1990s the company was using Barium Strontium Titanate technology and making thermal imaging affordable and more accessible to larger parts of the civilian fire service market. Early examples of portable cameras were head mounted but these were extremely heavy, cumbersome, difficult to use and as a result, take-up was poor.
It was the one of the first companies to offer hand held thermal imagers for the fire service but with little experience of using and deploying this type of technology, adoption was slow initially. These early cameras were still expensive, costing around $20,000 each they were a significant investment and were treated accordingly. It was very common to see a fire service purchase one thermal imaging camera (TIC) that was kept in the Fire Chief’s car and then not deployed with the team that needed it. Through building dedicated partnerships with their customers, manufacturers took on the role of educating and assisting them in understanding the real benefits of the new technology and how it could be used.
These original cameras sometimes weighed up to 7lbs and because they were so heavy, they weren’t properly deployed to investigate the source of smoke. Firemen were already carrying many pieces of extra equipment and tools, so the TIC was often left behind. If used in a live situation, one person was responsible for carrying and using the camera and his colleagues then had to rely on him to communicate what he had identified.
Throughout the period from the late 1990s, through significant investment, manufacturers continued in their efforts to bring more affordable, easy to use technology to the marketplace. As the technology advanced, they were able to offer products with more features in smaller packages and as the demand increased, prices began to come down. Today’s TICs are probably 80% less expensive than they were when they were first introduced to the market.
As a result of the wider use of TICs, users have learned how to interpret the images they see and TICs are used not just for finding a fire but discovering more about convection, monitoring how swiftly a fire is moving, locating victims, identifying different gas layers, seeing how much petrol is in a tank or chemical plant and for situational awareness.
Some modern TICs offer users the ability to select 20 different colour palettes but there is a debate about whether this ability may prove confusing to the user and require more equipment training and familiarisation time as a result. Users need to be able to understand the information as quickly and simply as possible. We have found that users will often prefer a black and white palette with the option to use intelligent colour settings showing objects as yellow when they reach 1000°C, orange when they reach combustion point of 2600°C and red when above 4250°C and a flashover is imminent. Hazmat teams use the technology for leak detection and determining how much liquid is inside a tank in a hazardous situation and, in particular, for detecting methanol flames that are otherwise naked to the eye. Having these types of features can be critical when making quick, split second decisions that will have an affect on the survivability of those in the vicinity of the situation.
In recent years, fire and rescue services have become more proactive in identifying their own needs by working in cross-functional procurement teams to put together meaningful specifications and demands. Some of these demands have driven manufacturers to design smaller, fast attack cameras that can be deployed quickly, putting reliable, high specification and affordable equipment into the hands of those that really need it.
Whilst a large portion of the market needs small, lightweight, ‘tactical’ TICs, there is still a demand for cameras with enhanced features for use by specialist teams such as urban search and rescue, hazmat and law enforcement officers. These users may need higher resolution technology, larger displays and integrated tracking systems with specialist accessories that add size and dimension to the camera. These may include laser pointers, lights, visible light cameras, transmitters, video recording for training debriefing and evidence collection. Depending on their role and requirements fire and rescue teams are now often buying 2-3 different types of camera to meet specific applications.
TIC video recording capabilities vary greatly between manufacturers and range from between 30 minutes up to 4 hours, so depending on the needs, this should also be considered. Specifiers need to decide on the general scenarios the TIC’s will be needed for as this will dictate where in this range the cameras should be choosing. Some of the newer models have cameras that automatically begin recording when the camera is energised, removing the possibility of the user forgetting to turn it on. The image quality should also be tested in real life situation, as the performance can vary depending on the environment (i.e. heat and cold).
It’s important during the selection process that through life costs, maintenance and repair charges are taken into account. Some parts may be suitable for factory repair and others could need to be replaced. Germanium lenses, for instance, are easy to replace but are not suitable for factory repair, so this will make an impact.
A real testament to the robustness of modern TIC’s is the tumble test and customers should consider the manufacturers claims carefully in order to make the best choice. The US standard NFPA 1801 Standard on Thermal Imagers for the Fire Service stipulates that the TIC must be put into a 4ft (1.5 meter) drum and tumbled for 30 minutes in order to pass the test. Water submersion tests and spray jet tests are equally as grueling for the TIC’s, but these tests ensure they are robust and sustainable pieces of equipment. Most manufacturers have TIC’s compliant to IP67 (submersion in water for 30 minutes) but only a limited number have them rated to IP66 (90psi jet at 100lpm per minute). When you consider the possible real-life working situations, the jet test is a much more realistic test, so when procuring TIC’s, it is recommended to look out for the results of these tests.
Improvements and developments in the design and technology of the modern TIC continue to be introduced. Many new technologies are pioneered in the US first and are then introduced into the European market. Some changes are driven by the differing Standards set in each continent or country; some are as a result of the differing modes of operation by the fire and rescue services. For example in North America, where fire fighting techniques are more invasive, BA sets often include a built-in radio beacon as standard. This is activated when a fire fighter becomes incapacitated and sends out a distress signal that can be tracked by receiver on the TIC. This facility means that we can provide a thermal imagining camera to rescue teams that has the ability to guide operators to a ‘downed’ firefighter very quickly. In an emergency situation, this could mean the difference to life or death.
The ability to package lithium ion batteries has made it much easier to manage equipment lasting up to ten years and has reduced the need for maintenance charging as is this case with nickel metal hydride batteries. Manufacturers are also moving towards the possibility of making IS or ATEX camera’s for HAZMAT more widely available.Innovations in the exterior materials used and the advanced circuitry incorporated in these cameras means that TIC’s are much more robust and able to withstand harsher environments compared to those on the market 15 years ago. These types of improvements have also lowered the overall weight of TIC’s, making them much more portable and user friendly when deployed in real working situations.
There is no doubt that advancements in technology and engineering will continue to provide us with the opportunity for further product development but there is no doubt that Thermal Imaging technology has come a long way and access to this technology has transformed the way today’s fire and rescue services operate.
Scott Safety is celebrating 80 years as a global leader in the development and manufacture of leading-edge fire protection, detection equipment and technology including safer industrial and military emergency preparedness and response. Since the introduction of thermal imaging technology to the fire services, the company has been at the forefront of innovation providing advanced, fire-ground proven TIC’s to first responders for use in search and rescue, overhaul operations and hot spot identification.
For more information, go to www.scottsafety.com