Edited by: Mark Butler
My first encounter with thermal imaging
My first exposure to thermal imaging was in the action movies that defined the late 1980s, namely, Predator and Robocop. Most people from my generation can remember the scenes of alien thermal technology being used to hunt humans through the Guatemalan jungle in Predator, and of Robocop using thermal to see through walls. Three years later, Navy SEALs was released in which the sniper used a ‘Starlight’ scope with thermal imaging mounted on top of a Barrett M82A1 to dispatch enemies. Back then, thermal imaging was presented as “alien” technology. In modern times, however, thermal imaging usage has become routine for certain groups such as the military, firefighters, law enforcement and hunters.
Military applications for thermal imaging are numerous, as most military units are now transitioning to having a thermal overlay for their night observation devices, such as the ENVG-B (enhanced night-vision goggles). Overseas and on American bases, military servicepeople conduct their own law enforcement and firefighting efforts, and so, their uses for thermography closely mirror civilian uses. During the Covid-19 pandemic, military servicepeople have even used thermography to identify people with a fever to try and slow the spread of the disease. You can read about it here.
Thermal imaging has been used in the fire service to identify “hot spots” during overhaul procedures, following the primary extinguishment of an active fire, to try and prevent reignition. Fire departments also use thermal imaging to locate people trapped in burning buildings, particularly children hiding in closets or under beds, etc. You can read about one such instance here.
The primary argument against thermal imaging technology is the cost. Admittedly, thermal does cost a premium over other technologies such as night vision devices. However, the risk of injuries or death to an officer and the associated medical costs that a department incurs during an incident far outweigh the investment required to acquire thermal imaging. To resolve this dilemma, companies like Pulsar have begun to develop thermal imaging technology that is both powerful and affordable.
In law enforcement, thermal equipment is often borrowed from local fire departments because the equipment is cost prohibitive. Sometimes this thermal equipment seems excessive when added to the extensive gear police already use, and police don’t need thermography as frequently as firefighters. The outlier to this is the men and women of the US Border Patrol who use thermal imaging on a nightly basis to track persons entering the country illegally through the southern border. By and large, American police departments have understood the benefits of thermal optics for years but balked at the investment in technology.
To understand the importance of Pulsar and affordable thermographic technology, consider the following hypothetical scenario:
Suppose an officer is dispatched to a domestic violence call. The female caller tells the dispatcher that her husband is armed with a handgun and is not going back to jail. When the officers arrive on scene, they are advised that the suspect left on foot prior to their arrival, and he is headed towards a neighborhood park. The officers get a clothing description from the female complainant and go to the park. The officers know this park has no lights after dark, so anyone responding will have to provide their own illumination. There is no air support, and the closest K-9 unit is on the other side of the county. At that point, the officers have 3 options for lighting: white light, night vision and thermal imaging.
White light works, such as a traditional flashlight, but the officers would immediately give up their position upon the white light’s activation. If an officer is using proper light tactics, they turn on the flashlight to scan an area, then turn off the flashlight and move in the darkness. Still, this is dangerous because the officers would make themselves a target and give the suspect an idea of how many officers are present. Night vision devices are a better option, allowing the officers to remain unseen, but everything becomes monotoned in shades of green and black (unless they’re one of the lucky few using white phosphorous). Still, this method relies on the officers being able to locate and identify a dangerous suspect from a distance. Scanning the park with night vision would also take a great deal of time, giving the suspect a chance to escape. Finally, there’s thermal imaging. A human body will glow like a sparkler on the 4th of July in contrast with a darkened and cooler environment, allowing the officers to see everything their adversary is doing, from stretching to scratching his nose, all while they remain hidden in the darkness.
Back to the story: One officer extracts an Axion XM30S and begins a search of the park from the entrance, because the Axion XM30S has a detection range of up to 1850 yards. At just under 100 yards, an Axion XM30S user could instantly identify a heat signature. The officer sees nothing at first, but, knowing he needs a line of sight, he shifts 10 yards to the right to get a different angle, and is soon looking at a playground apparatus that is big enough to hide a grown man. The slide connected to the playground is now no longer blocking the subject’s legs, and they are glowing white-hot against the cooler environment. Armed with this information, the officer informs all other responding officers they have a location on the possible suspect, and they coordinate a perimeter without giving up their position. Out of the darkness, the suspect is surrounded by multiple officers simultaneously and is taken into custody without incident.
Another hypothetical: An officer is on patrol at 3 a.m. and is traveling on a state highway. A vehicle blows by the officer at a high rate of speed, and he calls out on the radio to notify dispatch, and then activates his emergency lights/siren. He begins to accelerate to catch up to the vehicle. Shortly after the pursuit is initiated, a call comes in about a vehicle running another vehicle off the road a few miles back, in a different jurisdiction. The license plate began with the letter S and that is all the victim could provide. The vehicle description roughly matches the vehicle that just sped past; all the officer saw was a dark blur and taillights.
Up ahead, he sees the car turn onto a street that leads into a neighborhood. There are no cars on the street when the officer follows, but he can see that most houses on the street have no enclosed garages, so everyone just parks in their driveway. Other responding units arrive through the back streets of the neighborhood and confirm that the car did not leave the neighborhood.
Now, there are two methods of solving this problem – One, the conventional way, the officer would begin patrolling the neighborhood and stopping to inspect every dark-colored sedan. However, this officer’s department has invested in thermal imaging, and with the range it affords, he can scan cars for heat signatures without much effort. At 3 a.m., with little traffic on the roads, the chances of multiple, dark-colored sedans having been recently driven is slim to none. The easiest way to find the vehicles recently running, especially running and braking hard, is thermal imaging.
From the beginning of the second block, the officer can see the white-hot glow of an engine compartment, wheels, rotors and the exhaust of a 4-door vehicle. The vehicle is backed into the driveway. When the officer approaches, he can smell the brakes. He parks and walks around to the back of the vehicle to verify the license plate. It begins with the letter S – he has found his suspect’s vehicle.
These are completely fabricated stories, but real scenarios like these occur every day in the U.S.A. In most incidents, only one of the three tools discussed in these scenarios is available – white light. However, technology has advanced beyond the days of just using a flashlight, and as the cost of thermal imaging has dropped, Pulsar has been at the forefront of that evolution.
Axion XM30S Features:
– Detection range up to 1400 yards
– HD AMOLED 1024×768 display
– 320×240 microbolometer (thermal sensor)
– 16gb internal memory
– 4.5-18x digital magnification
– 8 color palettes
– Video and still-photo recording
– Stream Vision app compatible
– B-pack mini power system with 4-hour battery life
Pulsar has been working on solutions to provide quality thermal monoculars with the appropriate size, quality and price, so that any agency’s purchasing/procurement department will not gag on the price tag.
For this solution, enter the Axion XM30S. Pulsar’s Axion Thermal Monocular delivers ultra-crisp, richly detailed thermal imaging for easy, long-range heat-signature detection, day or night. This pocket-sized monocular is compact, lightweight and fits perfectly in the palm of a hand during use and is small enough to conceal in a pocket when necessary.
In hand, the Axion XM30S has the feel of the last iteration of the “micro” camcorders that were available prior to the rise of smartphones. The Axion has no flip-out screen like those old camcorders, but it has a similar feeling. It is light and compact enough to be carried by an officer without any issues, and it comes with a protective carry case that is expressly designed for just that…protecting the device out in the field. Pulsar knows that if the device and its case are too delicate to endure out in the field, then no one is going to carry it and it won’t be available when needed. Customization on the settings are there, it just depends on how far down the rabbit hole a user wants to go. The menus are there to customize the settings on the camera exactly to the user’s preference. Once they are perfectly customized, it’s done. From that point, it is turn on and go – without having to sit there and fumble around with settings each time the device needs to be used – something that could cost a life in a dangerous environment.
Essentially, thermal imaging is the way of the future. This technology has new uses that are being discovered everyday, aside from law enforcement, firefighting and military. Thermal imaging could be used to detect missing livestock on a large ranch, or it could be used for building inspections, to detect leaks, trapped moisture, air flow and electrical problems. Veterinarians have even used thermography to determine which of their animals is sick or pregnant. As the world continues to move towards more powerful, affordable technology, Pulsar will surely be there to lead the charge.