Thermal cameras have made a significant impact on the surveillance market since they were first released to the public. Initially, they were very costly, which resulted in limited traction for the technology, but a few years ago, more companies started producing thermals and the price has declined quite sharply.
Thermal cameras are still not cheap, but they are dramatically more affordable than before and we have seen them installed in many projects where their ability to ‘see’ in all lighting and most weather conditions makes them popular for, among other areas, perimeter security. One of the main advances in thermals recently has been improved analytics that help users use a black-screen approach and only focus on the video stream once the software has caught movement – in many cases it can distinguish between human and non-human movement.
But where are these devices going? Are we going to see more advances in image and analytic capabilities? Hi-Tech Security Solutions asked two industry experts for their insights into the future of thermals and whether new low-light visual cameras are a threat to the thermal market. Our interviewees are:
• Vanessa Tyne, senior KAM and team lead at Axis Communications, and
• Laurence Smith, executive at Graphic Image Technologies (distributors of FLIR thermals).
When looking at what lies ahead in terms of product advances, Tyne believes we can look out for some interesting developments. Axis has moved to using new sensor technology based on dynamic histogram, providing better thermal imaging, allowing for further detection and also better quality pictures. She says this will result in a significant reduction in false alarms.
“Another area of improvement has been the increase in performance on the camera allowing for more edge-based analytics, removing the need to run server-based analytics,” notes Tyne. “Looking ahead, we see a further reduction in price, with smaller thermal camera offerings making the technology more affordable, while on the high end we will see bigger zoom lens options for detection at longer distances.”
Smith adds that FLIR continues to enhance “the strongest thermal portfolio in the industry”. The company is increasing resolution and FOV (field of view) options, as well as integration opportunities, while its built-in analytics allows for higher reliability and faster response time.
As an example, he points out the Saros dome, FLIR’s most recent thermal product, provides a new level of intrusion detection. “Thermal is also an integral part of many innovative products that go beyond just security,” he says.
Analytics and AI
You can’t do anything in the electronic world today without hearing about how artificial intelligence (AI) is going to change the world. The surveillance industry is no different, although it can sometimes be hard to distinguish between yesterday’s video analytics and today’s AI.
In the thermal world, the addition of analytics and/or AI to the thermal solution has resulted in significant improvements in the usability and efficacy of these cameras in multiple industries. Tyne says that artificial intelligence, along with on-board video analytics is an important part of any video surveillance system, but the combination of thermal imaging and analytics/AI is providing a better result in terms of optimisation and low-rate of false alarms.
“This is thanks to the fact that thermal imaging captures images based solely on the heat radiating from people and objects, they’re unaffected by darkness or poor visibility. Therefore, they’re as accurate in pitch black, fog, and camouflage as they are on a bright sunny day.
“Thermal cameras provide reliable detection and verification, as shapes are still recognisable, even at great distances. An animal shape is different from a human shape (even if the latter is crawling), and the same goes for the shape of a vehicle. So an operator can easily recognise the object and won’t spend time chasing plastic bags in the wind.”
Thermal customers are the best testimony for the efficacy of this technology with video analytics, echoes Smith. He adds that once you have the right camera to deal with your environment (no dead spots and sufficient pixels on targets necessary for analytics in all expected weather conditions), then the analytics can be optimised for thermal video and designed for minimal false alarms and a high probability of detection and classification of real intrusions.
Of course, simply spotting an intruder is not enough. When covering large areas, you want to spot someone far off and then be able to track them to wherever they are going to ensure your response teams can go straight to the person and are not sent to where he/she was. This requires tracking technology and processes.
Tracking and identifying
Tracking should be done mechanically, according to Tyne. To accomplish this, the camera needs to be integrated into a pan and tilt unit that will follow the object, either based on the input from the analytics (or it can be done by a real-time operator who controls the pan/tilt unit). “It’s also possible to have the analytics from a thermal camera detect a person or object and handover those coordinates to a visual PTZ camera.”
Of course, there is also the option of getting yourself a dual-sensor camera with one thermal sensor and one visual.
Smith notes that the majority of fixed thermal cameras are used for perimeter intrusion detection. When an intrusion is detected, dual-sensor pan/tilt systems with thermal and visible cameras are usually used for alarm assessment. If lighting conditions allow, the visible camera will provide important information for assessment and evidentiary purposes.
“The Saros camera provides thermal and visible in one package in a form factor that is ideal for customers that need the benefits of thermal, but also expect visible video for normal security and forensic purposes,” he says.
“We see that bispectral cameras are being used in different scenarios, from airports to harbours, from industries with extensive areas to control to pipelines,” adds Tyne. “The combination of visual and thermal imagining gives the operator the advantage of detect, verify and identify all at once. With bispectral you benefit from one IP address and one VMS licence. Thermals can be used to detect and visual images can get more details, such as colour, etc.
“Moreover, as a thermal can see in smoke, fog, darkness etc., you get a camera that ‘always sees’,” Tyne adds.
The impact of low-light cameras
It must be asked, however, whether thermals have as bright a future as our interviewees expect in the light of all the low-light technology making its way into visual cameras. If you believe the marketing line, low-light cameras can produce colour images in almost pitch-black conditions.
According to Tyne and Smith, thermals are not in danger of vanishing anytime soon. “A thermal camera is less sensitive to problems associated with lighting conditions, such as shadows, backlight, darkness and even camouflaged objects,” explains Tyne. “Despite the lack of colours, as perceived by the human eye, latest thermal sensors and lenses, and on-board camera intelligence, allow thermal cameras to deliver sharp images.
“A combination of dynamic histogram equalisation, enhanced local contrast and sharpening dynamically improves image contrast in all conditions. This all results in making the scene easier to understand; the surroundings are recognisable, and objects and people are more identifiable.
“In addition, there are analytics available that exclude certain things from triggering a response (such as small animals). All this and more cannot be achieved with a classic visual camera, regardless their ability to see in low light. For detection purposes, especially at great distance, you would also rely on thermal imaging, which gives you a long-distance detection. For example, at night you would not be able to use a visual camera with zoom functionality to be able to recognise the subject of interest at 1 km. The subject would be very grainy and impossible to verify if it is a human or an animal. However, this is do-able with a thermal camera.”
Adds Smith, “Low-light cameras have clear benefits, but they still don’t address the primary application of thermal cameras which is 24/7 intrusion detection and alarm assessment in diverse weather conditions.
“FLIR is involved with the low-light cameras through various developments for the security, military, law enforcement and autonomous vehicle segments. The latest visible sensors are impressive, but there are still many situations where they do not have sufficient sensitivity to generate images usable by even the best video analytics. Even with external illumination, there are countless situations where light precipitation, insects or dust render visible cameras useless, while thermal cameras deliver video suitable for analytics and intrusion detection. This is true at short and long ranges.”
The latest available
To end off, we asked our interviewees to highlight one of the latest thermal solutions their companies have released to the market.
As noted above, Smith says the new Saros Dome, as well as the new FB-Series VGA resolution cameras from FLIR are two of the newest examples of the company’s evolving portfolio.
From the Axis perspective, Tyne says the company has introduced its new Bispectral PTZ (Axis Q8742) with zoom capability (also on the thermal imaging lens), to provide a flexible solution. “We also have introduced an affordable thermal camera in our modular product line, AXIS P1280-E. This will allow us to deliver new use cases, such as affordable perimeter protection, healthcare, retail etc.”
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