FREE e-Newsletter
Important News - Hot Topics
Get them Now!

Cobalt Software Platform - Mark43
Mark43's Cobalt software platform unites a set of law enforcement tools securely...

No upcoming webinars scheduled


Night Vision and Thermal Imaging

Night vision and thermal imaging systems can give you a distinct advantage in the darkness. But what equipment does your agency really need and what can it afford?

March 27, 2012  |  by Dave Douglas

Thermal systems are excellent for locating people in wooded areas. Photo: FLIR Systems
Thermal systems are excellent for locating people in wooded areas. Photo: FLIR Systems

If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems will look like nails. That's a huge mistake when it comes to the work we do in law enforcement. Whether it's bullets, protective vests, uniforms, duty firearms, or night vision devices, we need the right tools for a particular job.

Quite a few procurement officers have absolutely no idea what the folks in the field really need when it comes to night vision. Nor do they understand the different uses of thermal imaging versus light amplification and when they should be deployed.

There's a reason for this lack of interest and lack of knowledge. Night vision technology is complicated and at one time it was prohibitively expensive, the stuff that only a few agencies and the military could afford. So let's demystify the stuff, discuss its benefits, and talk about how and where you can get it, and why the price is dropping into your affordability range.

Thermal Imaging

Scientists have been studying thermal energy for hundreds of years. Back in the 1700s astronomer William Herschel started identifying the infrared part of the spectrum, invisible to the human eye, by looking at the sun with his telescope using different colored filters. There wasn't much practical application of this science until shortly after World War II when the U.S. Air Force began using downward-looking infrared cameras for reconnaissance missions.

Thermal energy comes from a combination of sources. Some things, including people, engines, and machinery create their own heat, either biologically or mechanically. Other things such as land, rocks, and vegetation absorb heat from the sun during the day and then radiate it off during the night.

Thermal cameras are actually sensors that see and measure thermal energy emitted from an object. Thermal or infrared energy is light that's not visible because its wavelength is too long to be detected by the human eye; it's the part of the electromagnetic spectrum we perceive as heat. Everything with a temperature above absolute zero (-459.67 degrees Fahrenheit) emits heat. So even ice cubes emit infrared energy.

What we see when we look through a thermal camera or scope is a representation in the visible spectrum of the infrared energy emitted by objects. Some thermal camera systems present this image in black and white while other more expensive systems present it in colors that differentiate between temperatures. The color aspect is critical to the fire services so firefighters can make decisions on entering a structure fire safely and maybe even determining the origin of the burn. But we cops mostly deal with people, so color output isn’t a huge factor; it’s nice to have but not mission critical.

Night Vision

Many people think night vision devices were first developed in the 1960s and were a product of the Vietnam War. Not so. The Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft or German Electricity Company developed the first usable systems in 1939.

During World War II some German Sturmgewehr 44 assault rifles were equipped with a "Vampyr" active night vision system. These earliest, man-portable, Generation 0 devices consisted of a 30-pound battery in a wooden case for the main light and another smaller battery for the image converter. The light was a 35-watt tungsten spotlight equipped with an infrared filter. The battery system was strapped to a pack frame and the light and scope were attached to the rifle. Imagine having to lug that monstrosity around during your regular patrol shift. Thankfully, you won’t have to do so. Today's night vision systems are passive—not requiring any external light source—and can fit into the palm of your hand.

Those old systems were Generation 0. Gen 1 systems used in Vietnam were true "starlight" systems that required no external IR light because they amplified existing ambient light, hence their nickname "Starlight Scopes."

Later, Gen 2 systems incorporated a micro channel plate consisting of a wafer manufactured from thousands of hollow glass tubes to boost light amplification to 30,000 times. Increasing layers of wafers can achieve 1 million times amplification.

Request more info about this product / service / company

Comments (4)

Displaying 1 - 4 of 4

Capt. John Sharp @ 3/29/2012 7:06 AM

Is anyone aware of a good grant for this technology, or has anyone had success in obtaining grant funds for this technology? I would appreciate any information anyone is willing to share.

Captain John Sharp
Walker Police Department

Dave Douglas @ 4/2/2012 8:05 AM

John, ITT through Morovision has a grant program. Practically all the others have information on available grants. I believe ATN will even help you with writing the grants. If you go to ATNs web site and look at the left side of the page, about half way down is a link to their grant information. Sorry, I should have added a few lines in the article regarding the availability. Glad you took the time to read the article and I hope you found it informative. Dave Douglas

Major Chris Craddock reti @ 6/7/2012 8:06 AM

Thermal Imaging Systems are covered in any Homeland Security Grant offered and another way to obtain funding for one of these great tools is to use, "Eds Public Safety". They will liquidate items in your property room and provide cash for such items. A great handheld thermal system for Law Enforcement is the "T5 thermal". T5 Good luck and be safe.

Jacob Potts @ 9/8/2016 10:35 PM

Hi! This March 27, 2012 article is a little behind the times. ITT Exelis has already been bought by Harris.

I know, it is tough to keep up with rapid technological progress and the whirlwind of suppliers changing identities! :-)

Join the Discussion

POLICE Magazine does not tolerate comments that include profanity, personal attacks or antisocial behavior (such as "spamming" or "trolling"). This and other inappropriate content or material will be removed. We reserve the right to block any user who violates this, including removing all content posted by that user.

Other Recent Stories

Data Tactics
To counter arguments of the media and activists, we need to do a better job capturing and...
The Buzz About Bitcoin
Before you invest in this cryptocurrency, it's important to understand what it is and how...
The Next Generation of Patrol Vehicles
Look at the current police vehicle and consumer vehicle trends and you can make...
15 Things You Should Know About Speed Enforcement Tools
Many officers use radar and lidar speed monitoring devices regularly, but not everyone...
Ekin: Smart Patrol in a Lightbar
What if you could install one product on a patrol car that provided capability for...

Get Your FREE Trial Issue and Win a Gift! Subscribe Today!
Yes! Please rush me my FREE TRIAL ISSUE of POLICE magazine and FREE Officer Survival Guide with tips and tactics to help me safely get out of 10 different situations.

Just fill in the form to the right and click the button to receive your FREE Trial Issue.

If POLICE does not satisfy you, just write "cancel" on the invoice and send it back. You'll pay nothing, and the FREE issue is yours to keep. If you enjoy POLICE, pay only $25 for a full one-year subscription (12 issues in all). Enjoy a savings of nearly 60% off the cover price!

Offer valid in US only. Outside U.S., click here.
Police Magazine