What is Thermal Imaging used for and How does it Benefit our Everyday Life?

By | March 14, 2016

Thermal imaging cameras, or thermography camera, are complex pieces of equipment used for analyzing specific scenes or objects by converting thermal energy or heat into an image. Known as a thermogram, the image then goes through an analysis process called thermography.


Although these devices were originally created for use by the military during the Korean War for night time scouting and combat, they have demonstrated their usefulness in a variety of other industries too, such as:

  • Law enforcement – the technology is used in surveillance activities to track and arrest suspects, in search and rescue tasks, and also to investigate the scenes where crimes have taken place
  • Firefighting – they are extremely useful in helping firefighters to see through heavy smoke, locate people, and pinpoint fire hotspots
  • Biological activities – fever can be monitored with thermographic imaging, for instance, in both humans and warm-blooded animals
  • By rescue teams after natural disasters – thermal imaging is an invaluable aid in rescue operations, both for the rescuer and the victim. For example, the destruction after Hurricane Sandy was horrendous and the lives of many stranded and injured people would have been lost if it weren’t for this device. Although conditions were extremely dangerous, rescuers – with the aid of a thermography camera, were able to detect victims and bring them to safety. Thermal imaging also helped rescuers to navigate safely through flood waters and potentially dangerous fallen debris, to reach those trapped under the water and rubble. Footage from these rescue operations are now used for training purposes, in preparation for future disasters.
  • Powerline maintenance – technicians can use these devices to prevent potential power failures, by detecting joints and parts that are overheating, before they become a problem
  • Improving energy conservation in construction – thermal imaging is an invaluable tool in the construction industry too, especially for building inspectors. Windows, roofs, and walls that are faulty and causing heat loss will be seen and repaired, and leaks can be detected before they can cause damage. Thermal cameras can check the quality of air in buildings too, like those situated in areas where there is heavy traffic for example, identify exhaust fumes, and reveal exactly where they are seeping into the building

Images created by these cameras can be used for diagnosis immediately, or alternatively, put through special software for additional assessment, accuracy, and information output. Thermal imaging is an enormous step forward in taking temperatures – rather than a number depicting the temperature, a photograph is produced, indicating the temperature differences on a surface.

Does this device act like X-Ray Vision and allow you to see through objects?

Thermal imaging is nothing at all like X-Ray Vision, but is rather a device that detects heat on the surface of objects. It is unable to see through any solid object – not even clear glass, which is the very reason why the lenses of these cameras are made from a specific element called Germanium, rather than glass. This is also why the lens of a thermal imaging camera costs more than the lens for a regular camera. Although many people believe it to be true, it is not possible at all, for thermal imaging to see through a person’s clothing, and neither can it see things inside a house through its exterior walls.

What is seen by a thermal imaging camera?

The visible light we see around us throughout the day is only a small percentage of the electromagnetic spectrum that we are able to see. Infrared radiation or IR, represents a larger percentage of the spectrum, and we need special equipment to enable us to see these other sections. Energy is absorbed and reflected by everything, and sometimes transferred too, at different levels. Infrared equipment is used to detect the different degrees of energy that is given off by different types of materials, and displaying their temperatures as images.

To what distance can the device see images?

The distance that a thermal imaging camera can detect things, depends on a few things:

  • How big the object is that you’re looking at, and how hot it is
  • The size or resolution of the detector in the device
  • The detector’s pixel pitch – which means the distance (measured in microns) each pixel is from each other on the detector. The nearer they are to each other, the better the quality is of the thermal image produced
  • The type or size of the lens being used on the device
  • Weather conditions

Thermal imaging is used in such a wide variety of applications, that to list them all is just about impossible. Apart from the above-mentioned applications, it is also used by racing teams in F1 and Indycar motor sport, in military operations to track the heat given off by missiles, the night time filming of lions in the wild, and even by NASA, to search for the presence of water (which they found,) on the moon.

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