Top 10 Industries using Thermal Cameras

You may have seen some footage once, where an air-to-ground attack is launched on a convoy using thermal imaging. Or, if you’re old enough, have seen the jungle hunter in the Predator movie utilizing its thermal vision. Also, due to our recent pandemic, thermal cameras were seen in airports and public places all over the world to check for elevated skin temperatures.

Predator movie poster

Some of you might even have some firsthand experience with FLIR thermal cameras or have some experience through friends and family. However, you will be blown away by the sheer number of industries which utilize thermal imaging in their products or pipeline. I certainly was when researching the topic!

For example, did you know thermal cameras are being used by your local fire department, inspection of solar panels, surveillance, hunting and inspecting homes and commercial buildings?

10 Industries which use thermal imaging cameras

Let’s find out which industries use thermal imaging technology in their products or operations, and as a bonus we’ll look at a few more at the end of this article.

  1. Energy audits and building inspection
  2. Medical industry
  3. Search and Rescue operations
  4. Studying wildlife
  5. Military (land, sea and air)
  6. Hunting
  7. Farming
  8. Firefighting
  9. Surveillance
  10. Astronomy

Energy audits and building inspection

The first industry on our list is also the one which gets overlooked most often, and that’s the thermal inspection of buildings. Due to climate change, more extreme weather conditions and growing utility bills, it’s important now more then ever that your house is well insulated.

But, how do you identify the places which need insulation? Some people want to do this the old guesstimation way of just walking into a room and sensing the temperature. Is it too cold/warm in here? While that might work to identify something is off, you still don’t know where the cold/heat comes from.

Here’s where thermal cameras come into play, and the cool thing is: You can even do this all by yourself with (relatively) inexpensive cameras!

Thermal Image Energy Audit
Energy audit using a FLIR Thermal Camera

We can do this either from the outside or the inside (or both for the best results). Thermal energy audits also give you the best results when the difference between outside the house and inside are the largest (especially with less sensitive cameras), for example on a cold winter day or hot summer day.

Let’s start on a winter day first. We’ll turn on the heating for an hour or two, after that we’ll take our thermal camera outside and point them at the house. Since the outside of the house is cold, warm spots will be easily identified. You might for example see that some windows are leaking heat in the corners, and in some cases, heat is escaping through the walls as well. Or you’ll identify some less obvious spots like vents, cracks or roofing which leak heat.

Now you don’t have to rush to your local Home Depot and start fixing things immediately, but now you’ve been able to identify the points of interest and you’ll need to do a manual inspection to see if those spots need improving or not.

As said before, we can also do a thermal home inspection from indoors. Let’s take a hot sunny day for example on which your a/c is working overtime to keep it cool inside. We’ll take our thermal camera again, and in each room point it at windows or other places of interest, to be able to identify heat coming in. If you were to do the audit from the outside, you’ll have to check for cold air escaping.

Heat map of apartment building
A heat map of an apartment building

Now this is just a very basic example of an energy audit. You can point your thermal camera at many more things inside your house to be able to identify problems or places of interest, for example:

  • Find moisture inside walls
  • See where water pipes are located
  • Check for broken floor heating
  • Identify construction defects

For the best results it’s always best to consult a local expert, who can not only do the thermal audit, but also advise you on if and which actions need to be taken.

However, you don’t need to be an expert to identify obvious issues, and if you’re a bit of a handyman yourself, you can do most of it yourself with relatively inexpensive thermal cameras. Here’s a few ones with great customer reviews to get your started.

Medical Industry

As we mentioned in the beginning of this article, thermal cameras are being used to fight the pandemic all over the world by checking for elevated temperatures from people passing by. They can do this in a fully automated way, for a large group of people at once, and only alerting the operator when above-average temperatures are detected.

Example of fever screening thermal camera
Fever screening using a thermal camera

But even closer to home a similar method is used. Maybe you’re even using a thermal sensor yourself without you even knowing, in the form of a thermometer to check your kids or yourself for fever. Forehead thermometers for example all make use of a thermal imaging sensor to measure your temperature within a second or two. Gone are the days of waiting minutes to get a reading under your armpits or even less-desirable places.

If you’re looking for accurate and reliable thermometers, try Amazon, they have many models available in wide price range.

Another way thermal cameras are being utilized in the medical industry is medical thermography. It can quickly and accurately detect circulation issues, injuries or places with potential infections.

Do you think you have cold hands or feet? Maybe you’re even unaware of this yourself, but a thermal camera doesn’t lie and will be able to identify these issues with ease.

Even tests with thermal cameras are now being conducted to identify deadly diseases like breast-cancer, in a non-contact way, often in combination with ai (artificial intelligence) algorithms to help a doctor make better informed decisions.

A field which absolutely can’t live without thermal imaging is the search for missing persons. Especially in vast areas like the Great Plains, lakes and oceans, thermal cameras are a vital tool for SAR specialists to bring these people back to safety.

Usually, these types of thermal cameras have a relatively large sensor and are mounted on a helicopter, drone or plane, making it easier to scan large areas at once. Each person radiates heat and in most surroundings there’s a stark contrast between the ambient temperature and the person(s) in question, especially in bodies of water.

Search and rescue operation captured using a thermal camera
Lost group of mountaineers located using a thermal imaging camera

With traditional night vision technologies one can see relatively well, even in dark nights, but spotting a person can be quite hard, if not impossible. With thermal cameras, the subject literally lights up against the background, drastically cutting down the time and increasing the chances of a person to be found.

Police helicopters use this technology as well to track down or follow suspects who are on the run. Always keep in mind that thermal imaging technology works in all weather conditions and can be used in day- and nighttime.

So far, we’ve talked about air-to-ground search and tracking, but even police officers on foot are often equipped with handheld thermal cameras as well to track down suspects. Imagine someone being on the run and trying to hide behind a small bush. It’s very difficult to spot this person by eyesight (especially at nighttime), but with a thermal camera at hand it will almost impossible to hide for the suspect, greatly improving chances of brining in the individual(s).

Thermal handheld cameras can be used for a variety of tasks. Take a look here for the best deals and discounts.

Studying wildlife

When looking at wildlife one of the most important rules of the game is to not intervene with the animal(s) you’re studying. Only then they will behave naturally and are not distracted by your presence.

Thermal cameras can be used for two things:

  1. Covertly identifying where the animals are located
  2. Studying the animals’ behavior at night without the use of artificial lightning

Imagine you’re looking for a barn owl at night in a forest. You’ll have a few options here, like a regular old flashlight, night vision camera or thermal imaging camera.

A flashlight will definitely lower your chances of finding the owl, and even if you do it will be distracted so much by the excessive light that it will either fly away or act unnaturally.

Giraffes capture with a thermal camera
A giraffe looks particular interesting on thermal

A night vision scope in combination with an IR-light would already increase your chances of finding the owl. It will give you a clear picture and the owls’ eyes light up while reflecting the infrared light. Whether or not owls can see infrared themselves is a topic of debate, on the more expensive night vision scopes you’ll even get away without any IR light at all.

Now, since a thermal camera doesn’t emit any light at all and the owl will light up against their surroundings it will be a good way to quickly identify where the animal is located without giving away your position. It’s not perfect though, since the resolution of thermal cameras is relatively low (compared to regular digital cameras or night vision scopes) it will be harder to identify which type of owl it is.

Some experts take the best of both worlds and use a thermal camera to identify that something is there, then switch over to regular night vision to recognize which specie it is.

Thermal imaging cameras are being used extensively while studying the behavior of bats, tracking mass migrations and even by your local forester. The most advanced thermal cameras are used by filmmakers to create documentaries about the nighttime animal kingdom.

Elephants captured with a thermal camera
Elephants captured using a high definition thermal camera. Notice the cold ears?

If you’re looking for a thermal imaging camera which you can use to detect and identify animals you might find want to checkout these stores:

Military (land, sea and air)

Probably one of the most well-known applications for thermal cameras is in the military. It’s also one the earliest records of a thermal imaging technology being put to the test (dating back to 1929!). In most modern militaries the use of thermal imaging technology is widespread, you can find them on tanks, aircrafts, boats, troops and even missiles.

Thermal camera mounted on an airplane
Airborne surveillance

It’s used to both navigate, find and lock onto targets. Troops on the ground use thermal cameras to identify foes, snipers use it to hit a target from long distances even in the darkest nights, while staying covert.

A thermal scope mounted on a weapon
A FLIR thermal scope mounted on a weapon

Advancements in thermal imaging technology are often being pushed by the ever-growing demand of the military. Always trying to reach a higher resolution, smaller form factor and increased sensitivity. The military gets the good stuff first, puts it to a good test and we, as a consumer can reap the benefits, albeit sometimes many years later.

Hunting

Hunting is basically as old as the human species; wooden spears have been found dating as far back as 500,000 years. We have come a long way however, for example, in the earliest days hunters would only hunt in daytime, especially on moonless lights.

Nowadays, spears have been replaced by rifles and we can hunt either in day- or nighttime in all weather conditions. With the decreasing price and improvements in quality, thermal cameras for hunting are finally affordable (not cheap!) for the average Joe.

Hunters basically use two types of thermal cameras:

  • A thermal monocular
  • A thermal scope/weapon sight

A thermal monocular is used to scan your surroundings and identify where prey is located. Most prey has great camouflage abilities and are quite hard to find with the naked eye.

When you hunt in pairs, you’ll often see a spotter carrying the thermal scope and giving instructions to the shooter who takes the shot.

A picture showing different color palettes of a thermal scope
A thermal scope can display different color palettes

Next to a thermal monocular you can also equip your rifle with a thermal scope/weapon sight. This way you can take your shot even in the darkest of nights and from long distances (depending on the lens). Some even have an integrated Laser Range Finder (LRF) to measure the distance to your target within seconds.

Some people swear by having a separate (handheld) monocular and weapon sight, while others have no problem using their weapon sight to scan the area. It depends on you and we’ll encourage you to try and see which setup works best for you.

If you’re looking for a reliable place in the US which carries a large selection of both thermal monoculars and scopes, have a look here.

Farming

Not the first thing which comes into mind when you think of thermal cameras right? Well, you’re not the only one. While doing my research in thermal imaging industries I was surprised to see that thermal cameras are used in farming as well, and not sporadically, for some farmers it’s a vital part of their daily operations.

A thermal heat map used by farmers to assess the quality of their crops
A heat map used by farmers showing irrigated and dry regions

With the aid of drones equipped with thermal cameras, farmers can quickly scan large areas of crops or plantations without worrying about damaging them. Thermal cameras can detect faults in irrigation systems, pest and diseases and plant stress levels. 

Another way thermal cameras are utilized by farmers is to verify the workings of a greenhouse. It identifies defects in electrical and mechanical systems, air leakages and temperature differences between different areas of the greenhouse.

Firefighting

Firefighters are always in a race against the clock and have to make many decisions in a short amount of time. With the aid of thermal imaging cameras, they can see through smoke, identify hot spots and assess the spread of the fire much faster and from a larger distance then before.

Firefighter holding a thermal camera
These thermal cameras are built to withstand high temperatures

Most fire brigades these days are equipped with either handheld, helmet-mounted or thermal cameras attached to drones. While the technology is similar to other thermal cameras, they are often built to withstand high temperatures and utilize special color palettes to identify which places are safe to enter and which ones are too hot.

Not only in residential areas thermal cameras are put to use, also in the fight against wildfires you’ll often come across planes and helicopters which can quickly assess the situation from above. Making sure the available resources are directed to the areas which matter most.

Surveillance

Surveillance is everywhere these days. From cameras monitoring tunnels, buildings, ports and airports, to surveillance by patrolling officers on the ground. While regular light cameras are better at identifying, thermal cameras are better at detection.

On airports for example you’ll find many stationary thermal cameras installed to keep an eye on the runways, terminals and parking lots. Often these cameras are dual-spectrum cameras. This means that they both utilize a thermal and regular light (CMOS/CCD) sensor. Advanced image algorithms are able to identify possible security concerns and will alert the personnel when needed.

An air control tower seen in thermal
Air control tower captured on thermal

This way the staff can focus on other things which need human intervention, instead of having to be glued to their monitors all day to spot abnormalities.

These special types thermal cameras are often equipped with large lenses and special sensors, some of the cameras are even actively cooled, further increasing their sensitivity.

Space industry

Not only on earth thermal cameras are actively being used. We also come across thermal imaging technology when we leave the earths’ atmosphere. Several satellites like MODIS, Landsat and the Sentinel-3 all carry a thermal sensor of some sort.

A satellite view of both visual light and thermal imagery
A satellite view comparison with visual light and thermal imaging

They can measure the earth’s surface temperature, track wildfires, monitor volcanos, droughts and other climate-related data.

There are currently many startups taking advantage of the rapid technological advancement in the thermal imaging industry to launch new satellites, with a larger spatial resolution and more accurate sensors they will be invaluable for future research.

Did we forget something?

Let us know in the comments if you thought of another industry which makes use of thermal imaging cameras and we’ll make sure to add it to our list!

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