Thermal imaging goes all the way back to 1800 when infrared was discovered as a form of radiation beyond red light. While infrared technology has many uses it’s most notable for thermal imaging cameras. A standard camera captures the light we can see with our eyes, but a thermal camera captures “invisible” infrared light, making technology such as night vision goggles possible.
The first thermal camera is almost 100 years old, and it spent much of its early days used in the wars of the 20th century. But today, they’re household items. Anyone can buy a camera with a thermal imaging sensor for just a few hundred dollars and use it as a hobby or recreation.
How Thermal Imaging Started
Also known as “thermography,” the process of using heat and infrared light to create an image goes back as far as early cameras. Hungarian physicist Kálmán Tihanyi first invented thermal imaging or “night vision” for British anti-aircraft defense following World War I. The new camera technology was so useful that it didn’t take long to cross the Atlantic where it grew rapidly in the United States throughout the rest of the 20th century.
First Uses of Thermal Imaging Cameras
After its success with British anti-aircraft defense in the 1920s and 1930s, the U.S. Military and Texas Instruments created the first infrared line scanner in 1947 that allowed cameras to produce a single image (however, that process took one hour at the time). As image processing speed improved over time, cameras were used for more practical applications, such as seeing through smoke when firefighters are trying to locate people trapped in burning buildings. Thermal cameras wouldn’t reach the consumer level until the late 20th century, but they quickly grew popular with smaller departments, agencies, and companies.
Consumer Adoption of Thermal Imaging Cameras
Smarter IR sensors made thermal cameras more practical and affordable for the consumer market, which some predict will be worth more than $10 billion by 2021. Whether it’s hobby or industrial use, there are all sorts of uses for consumer-level thermal cameras now that they’re accessible and affordable:
Night vision (popular with hunters)
Building inspection (checking for hot water pipe leaks and insulation)
Law enforcement (helicopter units following a suspect on foot)
Medical testing and diagnosis
Automotive night vision
Paranormal tracking (debatable if it works but a popular hobby nonetheless)
Law enforcement and medical uses might not sound very “consumer,” but the affordability of these devices makes them available to even small-town police departments and hospitals.
Advancements in Thermal Imaging Today & In the Future
Distance – Right now, a good consumer thermal imaging camera can detect heat signals across a football field. We can expect that distance to increase rapidly and sensors grow and processors improve. It’s not unreasonable to expect something similar to a telephoto lens for thermal cameras in the very near future.
Drones – The laws will determine how this market grows, but right now there’s not much preventing any drone operator from strapping on a thermal camera and exploring an area where normal drone cameras are legal. As drones get better, so with their uses with a thermal imaging camera attached to the bottom.
Setting the Standard
Thermal imaging camera tech is always lagging just behind standard photography, but the gap is closing quickly. It’s not unlikely that most or all cameras will come with a standard IR mode and we’ll be using thermal tech on our smartphones. As the need grows, so will availability.
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