The basic components of a thermal-imaging system

Image courtesy of Infrared, Inc.

Thermal Imaging

Here's how thermal imaging works:

  1. A special lens focuses the infrared light emitted by all of the objects in view.
  2. The focused light is scanned by a phased array of infrared-detector elements. The detector elements create a very detailed temperature pattern called a thermogram. It only takes about one-thirtieth of a second for the detector array to obtain the temperature information to make the thermogram. This information is obtained from several thousand points in the field of view of the detector array.
  3. The thermogram created by the detector elements is translated into electric impulses.
  4. The impulses are sent to a signal-processing unit, a circuit board with a dedicated chip that translates the information from the elements into data for the display.
  5. The signal-processing unit sends the information to the display, where it appears as various colors depending on the intensity of the infrared emission. The combination of all the impulses from all of the elements creates the image.

It is quite easy to see everything during the day...

Image courtesy of Infrared, Inc.

...but at night, you can see very little.

Image courtesy of Infrared, Inc.

Thermal imaging lets you see again.

Image courtesy of Infrared, Inc.

Types of Thermal Imaging Devices

Most thermal-imaging devices scan at a rate of 30 times per second. They can sense temperatures ranging from -4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 degrees Celsius) to 3,600 F (2,000 C), and can normally detect changes in temperature of about 0.4 F (0.2 C).

There are two common types of thermal-imaging devices:

  • Un-cooled - This is the most common type of thermal-imaging device. The infrared-detector elements are contained in a unit that operates at room temperature. This type of system is completely quiet, activates immediately and has the battery built right in.
  • Cryogenically cooled - More expensive and more susceptible to damage from rugged use, these systems have the elements sealed inside a container that cools them to below 32 F (zero C). The advantage of such a system is the incredible resolution and sensitivity that result from cooling the elements. Cryogenically-cooled systems can "see" a difference as small as 0.2 F (0.1 C) from more than 1,000 ft (300 m) away, which is enough to tell if a person is holding a gun at that distance!

While thermal imaging is great for detecting people or working in near-absolute darkness, most night-vision equipment uses image-enhancement technology.