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Last updated on July 11, 2021

Thermal imaging is used in all sorts of situations:

  • Electricians and energy companies use thermal imaging to detect where a house might be losing heat through damaged systems. 
  • Police use thermal imaging to find suspects at night.
  • Weather stations use it to detect hurricanes and to track storms.
  • It’s an advanced and versatile technology that can be used in many different applications for the medical industry, auto industry & the navy.

If you’d like to know more about thermal technology and how it can help you perhaps you’ll find the answers you’re looking for right here.

What does Thermal Imaging Detect? 

thermal camera for electrical inspections

Thermal cameras are devices that detect heat energy and translate it into an image in order to examine an object or landscape. The thermal images are known as thermograms. The images are analyzed through a process called thermography.

Objects absorb, reflect and transmit energy at different levels. An object at temperatures above zero emits infrared radiation. This is how heat is transferred and detected by thermal cameras & it’s the reason these cameras can operate in complete darkness.

Even though infrared radiation is not visible to the human eye, the energy can still be felt. If you hold your hand over a hot cup of tea you’ll feel the heat emitting from the cup. A thermal camera can detect the radiation and convert it into an image we can see. 

What is a Thermal Camera Used for? 

Thermal Technology for Firefighters:

Firefighters use thermal technology to detect body heat of trapped victims in a building. Thermal cameras help firefighters find trapped people through thick smoke and debris when they’re on a rescue mission. They also help firefighters navigate buildings that are full of smoke and allow them to see where the fire is coming from and if it is behind a wall or other structure.

Marine Navigation:

Marine thermal imaging can detect icebergs and other vessels at sea. Navigators can also use thermal technology for rescue missions to find people who’ve fallen overboard.

Gas Leaks: 

The uses of thermal imaging on construction sites are important because the technology can be used to detect gas leaks. Thermal technology can even be used to see what type of gas is being emitted. The leak can easily be detected and fixed quickly.

Additional uses for thermal technology are as follows:

  • Agricultural disease control
  • Military defense applications
  • Animal rescue
  • Unwanted pest detection
  • Hunting
  • Cancer detection
  • HVAC performance

Is Thermal Imaging Accurate? 

Because there are multiple sources of infrared (heat) energy it’s sometimes difficult to get an accurate reading of an object’s temperature. The images show a temperature approximation because the camera is using multiple sources based on the surrounding area of the object.

The camera may determine the value of the object’s surrounding areas rather than the actual temperature of the object. To get an accurate reading of an object outside, the temperature of the wind and climate must be taken into consideration as it may affect the accuracy of the reading. 

How Much Does a Thermal Camera Cost?

Cost all depends on the device’s specifications and features. The more features and higher specs the device has the more expensive it will be. It also depends on what application the thermal camera will be used for.

Marine thermal technology or medical thermology will be more expensive than standard devices. But if you’re looking for a standard thermal camera the price can range anywhere between $199 and $1500.

Which Thermal Imaging Camera is the Best?

Some of the best thermal cameras are currently manufactured by FLIR. They manufacture a wide variety of devices for different applications such as:

  • Government defense
  • Security
  • Industrial
  • Public Safety and transport
  • Home and outdoor devices
  • Marine systems 

FLIR manufactures premium quality thermal technology that produces high-resolution imagery. They develop devices that enhance perception and awareness. They offer diverse innovative sensing solutions to personal, government and defense industries at affordable prices. 

Are Thermal and Infrared Cameras the Same?

Infrared spectrum

Thermal Cameras: 

Thermal devices may produce an image but they’re essentially sensors. Forward looking infrared produce images from the heat being radiated by an object and not visible light.

Heat (also known as infrared or thermal energy) and light are both parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. A camera that detects visible light won’t see thermal energy and vice versa.

Thermal cameras can detect small differences in heat (as little as 0.01°C –) and display them in shades of grey or other colors. Different materials absorb and radiate energy at different rates. A thermal camera will detect these differences and convert them into detailed images.

Infrared Cameras:

Infrared cameras essentially the same as thermal cameras. The 8um to 15um range of the Infrared spectrum (shown above) is where almost all thermal cameras and scopes operate which is where humans, animals and almost all other objects emit heat radiation. Infrared cameras cab span the entire infrared spectrum from .75um to 1000um.

Sometimes infrared or thermal cameras are placed into the same category as night vision goggles. This is not correct as night vision devices use a light intensifying tube to magnify visible light (start light or other available light) 1000's of times which allows us the see the images. Nigh vision devices will not work in  total darkness whereas thermal imaging devices will. 

What is a Thermal Scope?

thermal imaging riffle scope for hunting

A thermal scope is a sighting device combining thermographic technologies to magnifying optics aiming reticles. These thermal scopes can be mounted on small firearms as well as larger and heavier weapons. Thermal sights are used for night hunting and military operations.

They’re particularly useful for nighttime hunting such as hog hunting. The differences in temperature between surroundings and other living organisms (animals) make it easy to detect sources of heat from the animal. It creates a high visual contrast between living organisms and the environment. 

Can Thermal Scopes be used During the Day?

Thermal scopes detect radiation so there’s no visible light needed to produce an image. They can be used during the day and at night time. Humans and animals are warmer than their surrounding areas so a thermal scope is able to detect them at long distances day or night.

Various colors represent different temperatures. With thermal technology the higher the temperatures are the brighter the image will be. More advanced thermal optics allows you to invert the colors to differentiate heat intensity. 

How Much Does a Thermal Scope Cost?

Using a thermal scope is a better option as you can use the device at any time of the day or night. Because of this, the device may be a bit pricier. Depending on your preference and the specs of the device you can pay anywhere from $1,200 to $8,000.

What is Night Vision?

Night Vision Scope Image

Night vision is the ability to see in areas with low light conditions. A device that allows you to see in the dark is essentially infrared technology. Night vision scopes need enough light and contrast to produce a readable image. 

If you’re hunting game or on a rescue mission at night, the moon and stars should provide enough light for you to detect objects using night vision. But in the absence of natural light, you can use IR illuminators to generate light.

IR illuminators work like flashlights for night vision devices but the light can’t be seen by the naked eye. It can only be detected by the night vision device. 

Do Night Vision Devices Work in Total Darkness?

Night vision devices can’t work during total darkness. A unit needs a small amount of light in order for the device to detect an object in the dark. The smallest amount of light from stars, the moon and even an infrared light can help produce the light you need for the device to work.

How Long do Night Vision Devices Last?

Night vision devices are manufactured using high-quality materials that are robust. Usually, night vision devices have solid shells that protect the inner instruments from damage. The outer coating protects devices from damage. 

A Gen 2+ system will give you 5,000 hours of use. Gen 3 systems can provide as much as 15,000 hours of operation. Clean it regularly and always put a cover on your device when you’re not using it. Your device could last a lifetime if you take proper care of it.

What is Digital Night Vision?

Digital night vision devices are a little different than standard night vision optics. For standard night vision devices, an intensifier tube is used to enhance ambient light. The device converts photons into electrons and multiplies them.

Digital night vision devices work in a slightly different way. A digital night vision device converts an optical image into an electrical signal through a CCD (charged couple device) image sensor. The CCD sensor has millions of pixels that collect incoming light, registers the pixels and converts them into a digital image on an LCD screen.

Digital night vision devices are also not damaged if used during day while traditional night vision devices have to be kept away from bright light as it will damage the light intensifier tube. 

Final Thoughts

Thermal technology doesn’t quite allow you to see through walls or solid matter but it’s as close as you can get to x-ray vision. As you can see, you can use thermal cameras for myriads of applications such as hunting, building maintenance and for surveillance around your house.

Although thermal devices offer the same functionalities they all differ in terms of specs. Check to see what application the device is used for before purchasing your own thermal imaging device. Our comparison table can help you make your decision.

Randy Angwin

About the author

Randy Angwin is an avid outdoor enthusiast and has been with Smart Scouter since the beginning. He helps create new articles and reviews latest infrared and night vision devices for the site as well as staying on top of the latest trends in the thermal industry. When not working, Randy likes to hunt and spend time with his two German shepherds.

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