The Future of Thermal Imaging


The year: 2004. The topic: When would my mother-in-law and father-in-law decide to buy their first computer?

The points of consideration were numerous. Did they really need a computer? What did it need to be capable of? Desktop or notebook? What would they do with it? All of these questions had answers. In fact, we had all talked about them many times. With a large, extended family, the advantages of email were not hard to understand. The wide access to information available on the internet was attractive. And who could deny the intrinsic value of Solitaire?

When pressed on why they had not taken the plunge, the reason came down to one issue: my mother-in-law was “waiting for the next model to come out.” Each time a model came out and she had talked herself into actually separating with the cash to purchase, someone was talking about the next version of the computer and what it was expected to have.

After a year of talking, they finally made the plunge in 2005. Today, she is an email wizard, Facebooks on a daily basis and is a Solitaire ninja – all with the same computer purchased in 2005. Today, she has a hard time understanding how she ever did without it and what had ever held her back.

The fear of buyer’s remorse is a powerful thing. It is the primary cause of the second-most popular question I get asked: “What’s the next big thing? What will the next thermal imager look like?” Many fire departments hesitate to pull the trigger on a thermal imaging purchase because they don’t want to spend that kind of money and find out shortly after that the next cool thing in TI was just released. So let’s take a look at the question on the table: What is the next big thing in thermal imaging? What does the future hold?

I’m going to fill you in on an inside secret. Don’t tell anyone you heard it here. Keep this just between us, OK? The truth is there are simply not many secrets in the world of thermal imaging when it comes to evolutions that might be seen as “game changers.” Do you want to know what’s next? Look no further than the military. The military has always been, and for the foreseeable future will be, the driver behind the development and evolution of thermal imaging. Thermal imaging was invented for the military and they are still the single, largest customer group with both the budget and the clear need for technological advancements.

As far as technological advancements go, the fire service will get tomorrow whatever the military is using today. Significant advancements in detector and imaging technology in the fire service are generally one generation behind the military, so what are those advancements?

Higher resolution – Increased resolution is the easiest advancement to consider. While 320x240 remains the highest resolution available in the fire service, 640x480 has been in use in the military for several years and, in fact, 1,280x1,024 is in use today as well. That’s right, megapixel resolution exists and it is 16 times higher resolution than the current 320x240 in use by the fire service.

Hands free – Firefighters often ask, “When will the hands-free thermal imager be available?” They assume hands free is the future, and there are many reasons why this seems like a logical evolution, except for one small issue: hands free has come and gone. Hands-free thermal imagers are available to the fire service, but nobody buys them. Hands-free imagers have taken many shapes and forms over the years, often attracting a lot of interest, but very few buyers. Although an attractive concept, the limitations are often a turnoff. You cannot share the image with anyone; the imagers can be disorienting; it is hard to transfer from one firefighter to another; and it is difficult to view in extremely dense smoke, since all of these units have existed outside the mask. This brings us to the next evolution – inside-the-mask projection, or heads-up display (HUD).

Heads-up display – HUD is another concept that I am asked about frequently. “When will the technology exist to pro-ject the thermal image inside the mask?” Well, it already does. Again, the military has done this for years. Many pilot helmets project flight, armament and visual data onto the facepiece of the helmet so the pilot can see the information regardless of the direction he or she is looking. The issue for the fire service is that all of the challenges of hands free exist with the exception of dense smoke.

Fusion technology – Fusion refers to the blending of two or more things into one usable image. This could be the combination of regular visual camera with a thermal imager, night vision with thermal imaging or other sensor combinations. Again, this technology has existed for some time. It is readily available in thermal imagers designed for industrial use and is in widespread use in the military.

There are really only two limitations on the development of the future of thermal imaging. The first is the issue of economics. Most fire departments are simply too cash-strapped to purchase the cutting edge or fuel demand for technological leaps. Many of the things commonly believed to be “the future” of thermography in the fire service are readily available today or have already come and gone, so what has been the problem? Why haven’t these features made it into the fire service?

It is as simple as price. I have yet to be asked for anything that was impossible to do or for which the technology did not already exist, but the limitation is always price. Want megapixel thermal resolution? No problem, but be prepared to pay for it. Want in-the-facepiece projection? That can be done as well, but you might have to choose between that feature and a fire engine.

The second issue is that the fire service is not really demanding anything. Products evolve based primarily on customer demand. Sure, there have been instances when a true evolution occurred in product launches; however, most of these revolutionary product introductions are around new technologies or ideas, not really improvements on existing technology. Once a technology is released to the wild, as is the case with thermal imaging in the fire service, product developers wait to see what the customer will do with the technology and what demands the customers begin to make once they start using it. The iPod is a great example. Apple launched it as another MP3 player, but quickly learned that the process of getting music onto the iPod was confusing and time consuming for the customer. iTunes was the development that catapulted Apple to super-stardom. Many thermal imaging manufacturers and developers are waiting for the opportunity, but nobody will know the needs of firefighters better than firefighters and, currently, they aren’t really talking.

What have I missed? What do you think? What does the future look like? If you have the resources, what feature or product evolution would you introduce? If the fire service speaks with a clear voice, developers will listen. Businesses exist to satisfy the needs of their customers. Take some time and think about it. Email me your ideas and I will use them in future columns in the hopes that, by sharing your thoughts and ideas, it will stimulate more thoughts and ideas. I agree that thermal imaging is due for an evolution. The question is, what do you want it to be?

You can reach me at Include as much detail as you like and let me know if it is OK to use your name as the source of the idea. No idea is too crazy, so bring ’em on!