Advanced Imaging

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Advanced Imaging Magazine

Updated: January 12th, 2011 10:01 AM CDT

Of Beemers, Boats, Medicine and More

As uncooled thermal imaging cameras fall in price, applications rise
BMW with Thermal imagers
Flir Systems
Thermal imagers allow drivers—as in this BMW—to see five times further down the road, and with a more complete picture side-to-side, than conventional headlights.
Thermal imagers increase boater safety
Maritime thermal imagers increase boater safety while navigating in times of reduced visibility, including at night. They help captains see floating debris, outcroppings of land and other vessels with plenty of time to alter course.
thermal image of animal injury
Veterinarians use thermal imaging to diagnose animal injuries. This image of a horse’s forelegs clearly shows inflammation in one on the right and not the left.
Thermal security
Thermal security cameras see more—day or night—than low-cost TV cameras, without needing external lighting sources or being hamstrung by contrast limitations.
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By David Lee

The technological breakthroughs that change the very nature of an industry often happen well before anyone takes notice. It’s not until years later—when the archetypes we have taken for granted are lying in splinters at our feet—that we recognize the extent of the changes we’ve witnessed.

Discovering and exploiting a root technological advantage starts a chain reaction that changes everything it touches, turning something that may once have been an item of luxury or status into an everyday staple by making it dramatically better and cheaper to produce. This has a snowball effect on markets and on technologies alike: as prices drop, new markets become available, sales increase, production volumes increase, and prices drop further still. Then more new markets open and the cycle begins again, feeding on itself. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Take, for example, the humble digital camera: a mere decade ago, its cost was high and performance marginal. Once volumes increased and production costs decreased, they became affordable to the average consumer. Now they are so common that it’s hard to find a cell phone without one.

Such a paradigm-shattering event is under way in the thermal imaging industry. Companies like FLIR Systems have figured out how to make high-quality uncooled thermal imaging cameras affordable. So affordable that what was once a “military-only” item now is available as a $2,000 option on a car.

Thermal imagers make pictures by detecting and displaying differences in heat energy, also known as “thermal” energy. The heart of these imagers is a small chip called the “detector.” Traditionally, infrared detectors had to be cooled to cryogenic temperatures (77K) if they were to be sensitive enough to detect temperature differences on the order of 0.03°C. In fact, operators had to charge early airborne infrared cameras with liquid nitrogen periodically to provide this cooling. Eventually, closed-cycle coolers came on the scene, allowing the creation of integrated cooler-dewar modules that were relatively self-contained with good imaging performance. From here, the development of an uncooled detector would seem to be a natural next step.

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