February 24, 2009 I'm pretty sure I'm not the target market for high-end thermal imaging cameras like the VisIR 640 from Thermoteknix, but I want one anyway. I want it in the same way that I desperately wanted the X-ray specs advertised on the back of my Iron Man comics when I was 12. This boyish compulsion, which makes usually sane adults lust after night-vision goggles and personal submarines, is due to the simple fact that ex-military tech is just so... cool.

And while a great deal of this technology is born of a particular military necessity resulting in a single purpose, once it hits civvy street, the resulting applications - and mashups - often change the world. Consider where we'd be without the Internet, GPS and radar. (We'd be bored, lost and crashing into other travelers on our holidays, that's where.)

So while I'd be using the VisIR 640 to see if girls were 'warming' to me at my local bar, or to seek out the hottest slice of pizza and the coldest beer, other, more sensible people, are coming up with better ideas. As always, affordability drives innovation and the diversity of non-military applications for thermal imaging technology is growing rapidly as costs drop and associated technology - such as optics and software - improves.

From ghost busting and heavy machinery...

Locating unmarked graves and paranormal investigation (honest!) are but two of the curious uses
thermal cameras have been put to since they were developed during the Korean War. The VisIR 640's
primary application however seems to be in the field of
'predictive maintenance' (PdM) or 'condition monitoring'. Roughly speaking, this is tech-sprech for 'looking at machinery (among other things) and seeing which bits are getting too hot or too cold'. This not only provides insight into the operational efficiency of equipment, but gives maintenance teams advance knowledge before a part failure results in an expensive repair job and downtime.

Thermoteknix clearly hope that the VisIR 640 will give them an edge in this field and has shoe-horned in a feature-set intended to impress:

  • A beefed up 640 x 480 infrared sensor which has (for the mathematically challenged among us) 4x the resolution of 320 x 240 IR cameras and 16x the resolution of 160 x 120 IR cameras
  • A high-contrast DayBright touch screen
  • An integrated voice recorder
  • A 1.3megapixel color camera
  • An LED illuminator/flash and a laser pointer
  • Condition RED software which integrates the thermal camera and an asset database to help build a data storage, image analysis, route planning, and report generation system. The software also supports file formats from other thermal camera manufacturers such as FLIR Systems, Inframetrics, Agema and Avio.

That they managed to tuck all these gadgets into a fairly compact, robust body is impressive enough, but for my money, the cleverest feature is the 'articulated central optics pod' (i.e. the lensy-looky bit can swing about) which allows the operator to position the camera ergonomically and - in tandem with the higher 640 x 480 resolution - maintain a safer distance from potentially dangerous equipment.

...to public health and national security

So, we've got 'predictive maintenance', which is already a pretty neat use for thermal imaging, but other applications abound and one of the more compelling and topical uses is in the area of health and security screening. Thermoteknix market their
VisIR Portable Skin Temperature Measurement System to governments and corporations around the world for just this purpose. The set-up uses a VisIR camera hooked up to temperature measuring software, which as the press release states:
"can be quickly installed at airports or other buildings where higher than normal body temperature might constitute a health or security hazard". I'm assuming sweaty evil-doers run slightly hotter than jolly holiday makers and it makes sense that people with exotic fevers would light the system up like a Christmas tree. To me this is a fairly elegant solution which has to be much quicker than other screening methods - something the already frustrated modern traveler will no doubt appreciate. In fact, this system was installed at airports in Thailand at the height of the SARS outbreak.

What else can it do?

As I was finishing up this piece and double checking a few details on the Thermoteknix website, I read that they've even used this system to successfully diagnose a
dental abscess in a killer whale at Florida's Seaworld. How cool is that? Now if I can only borrow one to work out where I put my coffee.

Have some interesting ideas for thermal camera applications of your own? Let us know your ideas via the comments section below.

Matt H Kennedy

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