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Infrared thermography (IRT), thermal imaging, and thermal video are examples of infrared imaging science. Thermographic cameras detect radiation in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum (roughly 9,000–14,000 nanometers or 9–14 µm) and produce images of that radiation, called thermograms. Since infrared radiation is emitted by all objects above absolute zero according to the black body radiation law, thermography makes it possible to see one’s environment with or without visible illumination. The amount of radiation emitted by an object increases with temperature; therefore, thermography allows one to see variations in temperature. When viewed through a thermal imaging camera, warm objects stand out well against cooler backgrounds; humans and other warm-blooded animals become easily visible against the environment, day or night. As a result, thermography is particularly useful to military and other users of surveillance cameras.
Thermography has a long history, although its use has increased dramatically with the commercial and industrial applications of the past fifty years. Government and airport personnel used thermography to detect suspected swine flu cases during the 2009 pandemic. Firefighters use thermography to see through smoke, to find persons, and to localize the base of a fire. Maintenance technicians use thermography to locate overheating joints and sections of power lines, which are a sign of impending failure. Building construction technicians can see thermal signatures that indicate heat leaks in faulty thermal insulation and can use the results to improve the efficiency of heating and air-conditioning units. Some physiological changes in human beings and other warm-blooded animals can also be monitored with thermal imaging during clinical diagnostics.
The appearance and operation of a modern thermographic camera is often similar to a camcorder. Often the live thermogram reveals temperature variations so clearly that a photograph is not necessary for analysis. A recording module is therefore not always built-in.
Non-specialized CCD and CMOS sensors have most of their spectral sensitivity in the visible light wavelength range. However by utilizing the “trailing” area of their spectral sensitivity, namely the part of the infrared spectrum called near-infrared (NIR), and by using off-the-shelf CCTV camera it is possible under certain circumstances to obtain true thermal images of objects with temperatures at about 280°C and higher.
All objects, both natural and manmade, emit infrared energy as heat. By detecting very subtle temperature differences of everything in view, infrared (or thermal imaging) technology reveals what otherwise would be invisible to the naked eye. Even in complete darkness and challenging weather conditions, thermal imaging gives users the ability to see the unseen.
First developed for military purposes, thermal imaging has since been adopted by law enforcement, fire and rescue teams and security professionals.
For law enforcement and security staff, thermal imaging detects suspicious activity over long distances in total darkness and through fog, smoke, dust, foliage, and many other obscurants. This allows officers to approach in stealth mode and make better informed decisions more quickly. Cameras may be handheld, vehicle-mounted, tripod-mounted, or weapon-mounted.
For security and surveillance systems, thermal imaging cameras complement CCTV cameras to provide comprehensive threat detection and integrate seamlessly with larger networks.
For predictive maintenance, thermal imaging reveals “hot spots” where failure may be imminent in many electrical and industrial facilities and installations.
How Thermal Imaging Works
In order to understand thermal imaging, it is important to understand something about light. The amount of energy in a light wave is related to its wavelength: Shorter wavelengths have higher energy. Of visible light, violet has the most energy, and red has the least. Just next to the visible light spectrum is the infrared spectrum.
Infrared light can be split into three categories:
Near-infrared (near-IR) – Closest to visible light, near-IR has wavelengths that range from 0.7 to 1.3 microns, or 700 billionths to 1,300 billionths of a meter.
Mid-infrared (mid-IR) – Mid-IR has wavelengths ranging from 1.3 to 3 microns. Both near-IR and mid-IR are used by a variety of electronic devices, including remote controls.
Thermal-infrared (thermal-IR) – Occupying the largest part of the infrared spectrum, thermal-IR has wavelengths ranging from 3 microns to over 30 microns.
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