The multiple benefits of thermal technology for physical security and continuous operations

While integrators may be familiar with the benefits of thermal technology in security, opportunities await when it comes to critical infrastructure monitoring.

Critical infrastructure describes the physical and cyber systems and assets that are so vital to society that their inoperability or destruction would have debilitating effects on our physical or economic security or public health or safety.

As our economy evolves, we consume more technology, which requires the expansion of critical infrastructure facilities, particularly data centers and utilities. These facilities are the lifeline of our digital ecosystem, and their operation is relevant not only to powering homes, but to the success of thousands of businesses and institutions around the world.

Modern threats to critical infrastructure

When we think of threats to places like data centers and substations, we often think of cyberattacks on large corporations or the occasional attempt to virtually break into a power grid. What we don’t immediately think of are the potential physical and environmental threats that could cripple the operations of a critical infrastructure facility. Physical damage and vandalism remain a constant threat to these operations. As you might expect, as technology has advanced, so have the methods of would-be vandals.

But what about the environmental hazards? Older utilities face growing concerns about aging equipment and bottlenecks in the supply chain for replacement components. Technological development shows no signs of slowing down, but the more data centers we build, the more energy we need to operate. As utilities expand their capacity, it is critical that they find ways to leverage existing infrastructure to streamline operations and realize cost savings.

As threats to critical infrastructure evolve, so do the ways we must combat them. One of the most reliable ways to improve perimeter detection and operational efficiency is to integrate thermal imaging cameras into the critical infrastructure ecosystem.

Understand thermal imagers

Most people understand the basic principles of a visible light camera, where the visible light detector captures the reflected light energy from specific objects and converts it into an image. Thermal imaging cameras work in a similar way, but instead of using visible light energy, they create an image of heat or thermal energy.

Each pixel of a thermal imaging camera acts as a temperature sensor, measuring thermal differences as small as 0.01°C. A shade of gray is assigned to each temperature difference and all the pixels combine to create the thermal image we see from the camera.

Using thermals in physical security applications

Some form of perimeter security system is usually a requirement for critical infrastructure facilities. Traditional security systems based on visible cameras are often the starting point for most facilities, but they are typically most useful when analyzing the event after the fact, rather than preventing a threat that occurs in real-time.

Individuals intent on causing harm often act intentionally and have taken steps to try to minimize their exposure to existing security systems. Because of this, thermal imaging cameras become your best defense for long-distance detection, as individuals cannot hide from the heat they generate.

A thermal imaging camera does not require any ambient lighting and is unaffected by many environmental factors such as complete darkness, light fog, light rain and snow. To improve the detection capabilities of a thermal imaging camera, end users often couple the camera with some form of classification analysis.

Being able to accurately identify a person’s presence in the most challenging of environments has proven that thermal imaging cameras coupled with identification analytics are one of the most effective advancements to a customer’s existing perimeter security system.

Customers are moving toward security cameras that use more advanced analytics such as geolocation targeting. (Image courtesy of Teledyne FLIR)

Thermal use in operational applications

The difference between a security thermal imaging camera and a camera designed for use is the presence of a temperature measurement. While security isn’t concerned with the physical temperature of a human threat, operations managers are very interested in understanding temperature changes at specific assets or general areas. Temperature changes are often an early indicator of a potential problem, such as equipment overheating or worse, the presence of a hot spot that could cause a disastrous fire.

Handheld and fixed mount thermal imaging cameras have been used for decades to help businesses achieve operational efficiencies. In recent years there have been efforts to convert the regular inspections traditionally carried out with a hand-held camera to a fixed solution for continuous monitoring. This gives the end user real-time temperature data on their devices. By analyzing this data over time, areas of concern can be identified and failures can even be predicted before they occur.

Temperature data analysis applications vary by industry. Utility companies often test key components of a substation to ensure they are not overheating. In a data center, many articles have been written about maximizing operational efficiency by monitoring airflow between hot and cold aisles. Regardless of the specific application, thermal imaging cameras can provide real-time data for analysis to improve overall operational efficiency and most importantly, uptime.

Provide immediate value

While critical infrastructure facilities are common places where thermal imaging cameras can be found, this technology is not limited to just those locations. The idea of ​​using thermal is to try and see something a visible camera can’t. Basic perimeter security systems should incorporate some level of heat to improve detection and response times. Lighting is always a challenge, and the more remote the facility, the greater the challenge.

Radiometric cameras (which produce temperatures) are often used in facilities where there is a high likelihood of sudden fires. Waste disposal facilities are a good example of where a fire could start below the visible surface. A radiometric camera monitoring the area could detect the sudden rise in temperature and trigger an alarm as a method of early fire detection.

Thermal imaging cameras offer another way to address safety and environmental risks for end users. When thermal is properly integrated into an existing system, it can result in better detection for physical security and improved operation of facilities.


Matt Strautman is Director of Global Business Development of Security at Teledyne FLIR.



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