Seeing the Light in Thermal & Nightvision

Here are the most significant developments in thermal and nightvision – and how installing integrators can sell and deploy these systems.

Things that go bump in the night have finally met their match. There’s no need to guess what’s lurking in the darkness — breakthroughs in video surveillance technologies now enable thermal and nightvision cameras to capture high-quality images in little to no light. More good news — advancements in heat-based imaging have not only become more reliable, but exponentially more affordable.

With the proliferation of these thermal and nightvision technologies and trickle down of their capabilities into midlevel as opposed to only very high-end cameras, myriad applications have been emerging. This is paving a clear pathway for installing integrators to expand their video surveillance repertoires and increase their revenues.

Breakthroughs Breed Better Imaging

As Jatin Patel, solutions engineer, Axis Communications, points out, new sensor technology is among the most significant advancements in thermal cameras. New sensors offer better resolution and more advanced capabilities that give thermal cameras great surveillance advantages when there’s no source of light available in a scene, he says. “Greater resolution provides meaningful images that can be utilized for more effective surveillance and deterrence. What’s more, intelligent analytics on these cameras now have access to these high-quality images which helps make training detection models much more accurate.”

The sensitivity of thermal cameras also continues to improve, which, in turn, enhances the accuracy of detection at long distances. As Chris Johnston, regional marketing manager — video systems for Bosch Security and Safety Systems, explains, “Greater sensitivity provides more details of an object, making it easier to classify the object to determine if it is a possible threat, such as a person, or nonthreatening — such as wildlife.”

Rui Barbosa, product manager, i-PRO Americas, cites the ability to reproduce accurate color in extremely low light environments as the most significant technological advancement. “Not only can we see color in low light, but there is also the ability to accurately capture color,” he notes. “And traditionally, in a 0 lux environment, there is no light visibility. While infrared illumination [IR] is used by many manufacturers, the best systems include the ability to control the IR intensity based on the scene. For example, lower quality cameras will produce overexposed or incorrectly exposed images where a close-up object cannot be distinguished,” he adds. “Higher quality cameras can adjust the intensity of the IR light to provide the best possible image.”

All these recent strides in thermal and nightvision cameras are providing end users with benefits they previously couldn’t leverage. End users typically deploy thermal cameras for early detection of potential risks, Johnson contends, because they want to know as soon as possible if there is a risk to the area or assets they are protecting so they can respond faster.

“Thermal cameras allow for video monitoring in dark areas where there is no added light source, such as remote energy substations. They enable detection at distances that are three to four times greater than those that can be achieved by optical cameras with integrated infrared or with white light illuminators. In addition, they can detect the heat signatures of people who are attempting to hide behind bushes or other foliage to evade being seen,” he says.

Patel adds that thermal cameras present a clear indication of an intrusion, along with visual confirmation in no-light environments since thermal technology does not rely on visual optics. “This is extremely important in an area where lighting infrastructure is impossible or does not exist. Thermal cameras can also cover a lot more area than traditional visual cameras, so less infrastructure is required in terms of cabling which is specifically advantageous in remote areas.”

Color accuracy is a key benefit, Barbosa believes, noting that if an end user is doing a search leveraging AI-based analytics, a poor-quality camera may mis-classify a vehicle as brown when it is, in fact, orange. “Color accuracy impacts the ability to trust in the evidence the camera captures. The longer we can keep a camera capturing colors, the better it is for forensic search or real-time notification. Once in IR mode, the colors are gone from the image. So, it’s important to strike a balance between low lux and IR in camera design,” he advises.

Key Verticals to Target

Because of the breakthroughs in thermal and nightvision video surveillance and the myriad benefits they deliver to end users, adoption is increasing, particularly for certain applications. As Johnson echoes, the adoption of thermal cameras continues to be application-specific and, as the value of the assets being protected rises, so does the willingness of the end user to spend more on technologies to reduce the risks to these assets. These cameras tend to be installed mostly for perimeter intrusion detection systems at critical sites, he reports, because demand for thermal cameras is driven by a need for long-range perimeter intrusion detection.


Analytics can provide tracks of movement for individuals in the detection area to further help with security personnel dispatch and more effective response to a threat. Image: Axis Communications.

Specific markets he cites include government installations, airports, borders and critical infrastructure sites such as energy facilities, reservoirs, water treatment facilities, and dams. “Cameras that offer dual imagers — thermal and optical — are also well suited for monitoring tunnels,” he says. “While the visible imager can be used to monitor normal activity inside the tunnel, the thermal imager can assist in the event of a fire when smoke is present in the tunnel. The thermal imager can provide monitoring centers with situational awareness when smoke obscures the view of the visible imager.”

Patel concurs that thermal cameras are widely adopted for perimeter surveillance of critical infrastructure. Since critical infrastructure requires a higher level of perimeter protection in all conditions, thermal cameras have become the obvious choice due to their detection capabilities regardless of lighting conditions available, he points out. “Additionally, many critical infrastructure sites are remote in nature, so having infrastructure setup in terms of cabling is less of a challenge for thermal cameras. Thermal cameras with proper lenses can provide longer coverage areas, and they reduce infrastructure and setup cost.”

So which types of alerts/monitoring options are end users relying on to be notified when these cameras detect an intrusion or potential incident? Barbosa weighs in that end users are relying more and more on AI-enabled camera analytics to provide accurate detection, particularly in low light, of objects such as people and vehicles. “AI-enabled cameras can collect attributes about the scene such as the colors of clothing. This highlights the importance of accurately capturing colors even in the lowest light conditions,” he emphasizes. “End users have flexible options for alarm notifications such as e-mail, SMS and push notifications on PC or mobile devices.”

In most cases, thermal cameras are used along with analytics that generate alarms based on detection areas preconfigured for desired surveillance areas within a camera’s view, Patel adds. Analytics can also provide tracks of movement for individuals in the detection area which further helps with security personnel dispatch and more effective response to a threat. And, as Johnson notes, end users want the ability to be alerted to a person at their perimeter. “With the ability to detect and classify objects, thermal cameras with built-in video analytics can detect and alert to a person at a perimeter, while ignoring wildlife. Built-in intelligence helps to reduce the number of false detections. Reducing false alarms improves the efficiency of security personnel at a facility who may need to be dispatched to the area to investigate the alarm.”

It’s important for integrators to keep in mind that although new capabilities are enticing many more end users to adopt thermal and nightvision cameras, there are some applications and/or locations that simply are not well-suited to deploying these types of cameras. Patel cautions that areas where a high concentration of water vapor and carbon dioxide are present should typically be avoided when using thermal cameras. He explains, “Water vapor and carbon dioxide in the air are the primary causes of absorption. During absorption, the heat radiated from an object is absorbed by water vapor and carbon dioxide and it loses some of its energy before reaching the camera. This will limit a thermal camera’s ability to detect heat radiated from objects.”

In addition, Johnson advises that thermal cameras may not be needed in well-lit areas or those with enough ambient lighting from nearby buildings or other sources. Optical cameras with low light capabilities or those with integrated IR can provide clear images in these areas, he says. “The latest low light cameras deliver high-quality color images in very limited lighting conditions. These cameras can provide greater details — such as the color of a vehicle or clothing — that can aid investigations in environments with adequate ambient lighting.”

Getting Up to Speed

Given the new capabilities that advancements have afforded, and at much more affordable prices than ever before, opportunities abound for installing integrators to sell and deploy devices and systems offering thermal and/or nightvision feature sets. There are resources out there to help them segue into this market. As Barbosa points out, integrators can educate themselves on the capabilities of these cameras by comparing different brands and requesting sample units from different manufacturers, as well as researching third-party industry comparisons.

Manufacturers offer training to educate dealers and integrators on the benefits of their specific products, which can be helpful in determining the brand/model to sell, Johnson adds, noting that it’s important that the integrator understands the capabilities and limitations of the camera. Features to review, he says, should include resolution, refresh rate and sensitivity.


Cameras that offer dual imagers are well-suited for a variety of environments due to them containing both thermal and optical imagers. Image: Bosch.

“High resolutions will enable detection at longer distances. A faster refresh rate provides greater detail for fast-moving objects. Higher sensitivity will enable improved object detection in areas with high heat, where the temperature differential makes it difficult to distinguish people from the background.”

He also advises that dealers and integrators do their own research to understand the capabilities and limitations of the technology in general. “For example, in applications where rain, fog, or snow are common, a camera that features dual visible and thermal imagers may provide better performance. Thermal cameras can be challenged to produce usable images in rain, fog or snow.”

Patel concurs that it’s important for system integrators and dealers to know the main applications and key benefits of thermal cameras. Namely, compared to visual cameras, thermal cameras provide more reliable detection and shape recognition, he says. This is achieved by combining high image contrast with motion detection. As a result, the false alarm rate can be kept down, with fewer unnecessary responses and actions by personnel.

Now is the time for enterprising dealers and integrators to seize the new opportunities that thermal and nightvision cameras present. And, those opportunities, Johnson adds, can go beyond the bounds of security applications.

“The increased use of radio metrics will allow more thermal cameras to measure the surface temperature of an object. This capability can be used in applications such as measuring the temperature of industrial equipment and proactively triggering alerts if the equipment exceeds a specified temperature. This technology will expand the use of thermal cameras beyond security to solve operational challenges for end users.”

Erin Harrington has 20+ years’ security industry media experience.

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