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Thermal imaging camera technologies image hidden targets from far in complete darkness through fog or smoke

Thermal vision cameras make pictures or video from heat, not visible light. Heat (infrared thermal radiation) and light are both parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Thermal cameras detect more than just heat. Heat vision cameras detect the tiny differences in heat, even as small as 0.01° Celsius.


All objects warmer than absolute zero (-273°C/-459°F) emit infrared radiation in the MWIR and LWIR wavelengths (3µm–14µm) in an amount proportional to the temperature of the object. Thermal imaging focuses and detects this radiation, then translates the temperature variations into a greyscale image, using brighter and darker shades of grey to represent hotter and cooler temperatures, which gives a visual representation to the heat profile of the scene.


While infrared energy is not visible to the human eye, it can be detected with thermal imaging technologies that translate this energy into visible colors. These technologies can display images through electronics that process the information gathered by the thermal imaging camera, which is then translated into a normal video signal that can be viewed on a standard monitor.


As a technology originally developed for military purposes, thermal imaging allows soldiers to effectively see in areas where little to no light is present, such as in the evening, or during incidents where smoke, fog, dust or any other airborne obscurant is present.


Humans, animals and vehicles are typically warmer than their environment, providing a high contrast that allows for fast wide-angle detection of threats from a much further distance (sometimes up to 50km) than what can be achieved with optical imaging. Thermal energy passes through many visible obscurants including smoke, dust, light fog, and light foliage. In addition, the precise temperature differences that thermal imaging detects can sometimes reveal objects underneath the surface of other materials, such as joists behind a wall or items under clothing, since they affect the temperature of the surface material.


Motion detection is an important element of Automatic Target Recognition (ATR) and perimeter monitoring systems. Thermal imaging has become an integral part of these systems because of its ability to operate in all weather conditions. Generally, for long range surveillance applications, the images containing the moving target are transmitted to the base station for manual interpretation. In short range surveillance, moving target identification (MTI) systems intelligently recognize if the moving target is a potential enemy target and transmits this information to a firing system.

Thermal Imaging  provides many capabilites to military including scanning broad areas through aircrafts, guidance systems to avoid collision at sea, help identify, locate & target the enemy forces. Thermal Imagers  have many military applications. Vehicle Mounted Sights are rugged thermal imagers  mounted on combat vehicles provide  long-range surveillance, rapid identification and threat location for our forces and help in their elimination. Military bases and static installations present an attractive target to terrorist as well as enemy forces. Effective perimeter security is essential since such installations house administrative and operational equipment, along with personnel.Early warning thermal imaging systems enable the military to assess the potential threat and act in a timely and effective manner.


Thermal Imaging technology and trends

A thermal imaging camera is a contactless device that detects infrared energy (heat emitted by objects) and converts it into a visual image. It consists of a lens, thermal sensor, a mechanical housing, and processing electronics. Some of the important characteristics of thermal imaging cameras are resolution, field of view, range, thermal sensitivity, focus, and spectral range.


Surveillance camera technology  is advancing rapidly from  latest imaging processor, video compression standard to megapixel count. Technological advancements have been aimed toward the miniaturization of cores, making them lightweight and less power consuming.


Infrared on a large scale

A reduced pitch combined with improved readout circuit technology results in a high-definition image. The quality of the image produced by an infrared sensor depends on the number of pixels and its spatial resolution: the higher the number of pixels, the better the quality of the image. The current trend in developing MWIR cooled infrared sensors for military use is for designing smaller pixels (10µm) in a large format (> VGA) and with a higher operating temperature (>150 K), but without affecting the quality of the image. This constant striving to improve performance aligns with the defense sector’s needs regarding all military applications relating to night vision, designing binoculars, drones, armored equipment, etc. This notion is also central to the Infantry of the Future program, with, for example, shooting glasses with infrared sensors.


In 2018, Leonardo DRS announced the launch of its smallest 10-micron uncooled thermal camera core for OEMs. Such miniaturized camera cores can be used by OEMs in their customized product offering, resulting in the increased revenue growth of the global thermal imaging market. The demand for integration of cores with smartphones has enabled several users to diagnose and detect electrical and mechanical faults using their handheld devices.

With images produced in black, white, or color, the clarity and ability to make vivid identifications are limited with this technology. Several factors can impact the image quality produced by thermal imaging devices, including focus, optics, spatial resolution, and field of view (FOV). The focus of an infrared camera has a direct effect on the accuracy of the data captured following temperature measurement, while the optics of a thermal imager determines how successful infrared energy is able to be transmitted to the detector. Another important factor that determines the image quality of a thermal imaging system is the width of the FOV, where a larger area can be seen with a wider FOV.


In military environments, diffraction and atmospheric turbulence are two of the main reasons image blurring occurs. As technologies continue to improve, technology companies such as PixonImaging offer solutions to some of the problems that military leaders face when using thermal imaging devices in combat. Rick Puetter, chief executive officer of PixonImaging in San Diego, claims that their technologies provide warfighters with a clear field of view, enabling greater resolution, increased contrast, and reduced image noise to enhance image quality.


Camera manufacturers have begun introducing  bi-spectrum or bi-spectral cameras models that feature the seamless integration of a second visible light camera. These models, known as , have numerous benefits. “The first is, very simply, providing that color detail of scene that uses the more reliable thermal with video content analysis [VCA] combination to detect the target, says Hikvision Product Manager Dan Stanfield says.


More powerfully, as with bi-spectrum pan/tilt/zoom cameras, the thermal side is used for detection, with the additional capability to track targets once detected and use the visible camera to zoom in on the target, providing even more detail while additionally being able to move outside the original field of view,” he explains. “And second, and almost as important, is that these cameras are improving the total cost of ownership and return on investment.”


Artificial Intelligence as an innovation factor

The revolution and evolutions that artificial intelligence has brought about are well established. In both civilian and military settings, algorithms and AI provide additional information and represent an added value that is even more pronounced in the military arena.


Another trend is integration of AI and deep learning  for classification-based analytics to provide the most effective intrusion detection . When AI is used in conjunction with thermal sensors, it can do more than just detect a presence – it can actually help soldiers understand the scene that is unfolding. An image produced by thermal imaging can be passed through the filter of artificial intelligence, which can analyze, adapt, weigh up alternative solutions, and develop new strategies. This principle is applied today when equipping infantry, base camps, and vehicles.


“Now, with the improved processing power and the deep learning algorithms being developed, we are seeing improvements to VCA performance by being able to focus more on the relevant targets in a scene, like people or vehicles, while filtering out small animals and any other scene movement that could result in an unnecessary alarm,” says Stanfield.


SWaP products: where miniaturization meets performance

Almost every new development, whether embedded, airborne or land-based, carried by military personnel or handheld, shares the same requirement: the need to reduce the size, weight, and amount of available resources used to further contribute to the overall functionality of the system. SWaP stands for Size, Weight and Power. When it comes to military applications, this constant striving for optimization is even more of a priority. Soldiers need increasingly lightweight and compact equipment without compromising on performance. Infrared sensors integrated into military equipment must meet these criteria to improve soldiers’ mobility and efficacy.


Lately, this effort to reduce SWaP has increasingly seemed to be the main deciding factor, leading to some tough compromises on improvements to the performance of the system and multifunctional structures.


Thermal Imaging Cameras

French company ULIS, a leading manufacturer of thermal image sensors for commercial and military applications, anounced the availability of Pico1024E GenII, a high-precision, energy-efficient megapixel thermal image sensor. The sensor provides a new level of threat-detecting performance, including the larger panoramic field of view or extended detection range (3km – 5km), according to the company.


Pico1024E GenII, a 1024 x 768 17-micron pixel pitch thermal image sensor, has low levels of power consumption (200mW), while offering higher thermal sensitivity of lower than 50mK, 15 percent improvement over the previous generation and faster frame rate frequency of more than 100Hz for fast target tracking. Thermal sensitivity is a key parameter for indicating the image accuracy and visible details provided over a measurable distance, in this case up to 5km to detect a tank.


It shall enhance the local situation awareness of Helicopter pilots and drivers of land vehicles, who can benefit from the real-time thermal imaging either for night vision or situational awareness in difficult weather or dusty or smoky conditions.It can provide enhancements in operations, such as ‘man in the loop’ for anti-surface missiles. ULIS’ PICO E products are deployed in European and North American airborne local situation awareness, land vehicle driver vision enhancement applications and European anti-surface missile programs. ULIS, a subsidiary of Sofradir and GE Equity, specializes in the design and manufacture of high quality thermal image sensors for commercial and military applications.


UK-headquartered BAE has introduced a 640×480 pixel TWV640 core, reducing the pixel size from 17 to 12 microns. This will allow imaging system manufacturers to reduce lens size by 50 per cent and decrease optics costs by 20 per cent, without compromising image quality,” claims the firm. The new sensor is able to capture images through fog, smoke, dust, and haze, at a frame rate of 60 Hz.


It is said to be compatible with off-the-shelf lenses from the usual optical component vendors, and with standard interface protocols, and suited to a wide range of applications including day/night security cameras, firefighting vision systems, process monitoring, handheld targeting systems, automotive cameras, and thermography systems


Team Challenger 2 offers world-leading, thermal imaging technology for Challenger 2 tank upgrade

The technology, developed by Leonardo in the UK, is being offered to the British Army as part of Team Challenger 2’s bid to upgrade the Army’s Main Battle Tank. The hundreds-of-thousands of individual pixels in the camera, each one-twelfth the thickness of a human hair, can detect temperature differences as small as one-fiftieth of a centigrade, allowing for extremely sharp images


“Sighting is a vital element of a battle tank’s role and Leonardo’s sight will provide our troops with unparalleled 24-hour night-and-day visibility, giving them a long-range threat identification system that really makes the most of the tank’s firepower,” said BAE. “Our infra-red technology plays a crucial role in supporting British troops in the most challenging environments and we’re pleased to be working alongside BAE Systems to offer this technology for Challenger 2, helping extend its life to 2035 and beyond.”


From a military standpoint, the thermal imaging system was previously used in Afghanistan to allow Chinook Helicopters to fly undetected through mountain valleys, even in poor weather conditions. It also brought the ability to detect, recognise and identify coalition troops or vehicles at a safe standoff range prior to entry into drop or landing zones.

Qioptiq Dragon S thermal weapons sight

The Qioptiq Dragon S (sniper) clip on thermal sight is a ruggedised, uncooled thermal imager that provides snipers with 24/7 surveillance and target engagement capability, even in poor visibility, total darkness, and through battlefield obscurants. Capable of detecting a human-sized target at a range of approximately 3km, the Dragon S includes a hot-swappable battery system that allows the operator to constantly keep eyes on the target, and it can be adapted for use on a variety of weapons mounting to either a Picatinny or NATO rail.


Qioptiq’s Kite image-intensified weapons scope – available as a stand-alone scope or an inline optic to maintain accuracy during the day – allows users to detect a person at up to 2.5km distance in peak conditions. The Maxkite-1 version, meanwhile, is capable of detecting targets at up to 4.5km.


Market growth

The global thermal imaging camera market size was valued at $3.16 billion in 2020, and is projected to reach $7.49 billion by 2030, registering a CAGR of 10.0% from 2021 to 2030.

Originally, thermal imaging camera was developed for surveillance and military operations, but it is now widely used for building inspections (moisture, insulation, and roofing), autonomous vehicles & automatic braking, industrial inspections, firefighting, skin temperature screening, and scientific research.


Increasing government expenditure on the aerospace & defense sector is one of the factors fueling the growth of this market. The military infrared market represents nearly 60% of the value of the total market. It is a growing market with big players in North America and Asia.


Reduction in the price of thermal imaging products, the increasing adoption of thermal imaging in perimeter security, and penetration in machine vision applications are driving the growth of this market. The growing popularity of UAVs equipped with highly advanced video cameras in the military and civilian operations is among the major factor contributing towards the growth as the technology helps the aircraft to fly in darkness and detects target through clouds and smoke.


The emergence of COVID-19 pandemic has positively influenced the thermal imaging camera market growth. This is attributed to the fact that the use of thermal camera increased in crowded public places. In addition, it is highly used in different sectors such as health, food, and security. Thus, surge in installations of thermal cameras during the pandemic notably contributes toward the growth of the market.



The thermal imaging camera market share is segmented into type, application, and industry vertical, sales channel, and region. Depending on product type, the market is categorized into cameras, modules, and scopes & goggles. On the basis of type, the market is bifurcated into cooled and uncooled. The cooled and uncooled segments are further segmented as handheld and fixed. The handheld and fixed segments are further classified as mid-wave infrared (MWIR) and long-wave infrared (LWIR). The uncooled segment dominated the market, in terms of revenue in 2020, and is expected to follow the same trend during the forecast period.



The applications include security & surveillance, monitoring & inspection, and detection & measurement. Depending on industry vertical, the thermal imaging camera market share is fragmented into industrial, marine, aerospace & defense, commercial, automotive, and others. The aerospace & defense segment acquired the highest share in 2020, however, the commercial segment is expected to grow at a high CAGR from 2021 to 2030. By sales channel, the market is divided into direct and indirect sales channel. The direct sales channel led the market in 2020, however, the indirect sales channel is projected to grow at high rate during the forecast period.


The healthcare and life sciences vertical is expected to grow at the highest CAGR during the forecast period. The growth is attributed to increasing usage of thermography for detection of internal injuries without affecting the human body. This technique is also useful in monitoring wildlife health, which helps to cure and protect them from illness.


The thermal imaging market is dominated by the aerospace & defense vertical owing to the growing need for border security for law enforcement. Moreover, thermal imaging scopes and defense solutions conform to the strictest military standards for deployment (land, sea, and air). These solutions are used for thermal scopes, weapon sights and stations, gimbals, UAVs, naval observation, IR sensors, and driver vision enhancers (DVEs) for tanks and military vehicles. The security & surveillance segment was the highest revenue contributor in 2020, however, the monitoring & inspection segment is projected to garner significant market share during the forecast period.


Infrared Systems include:

Ground-based Systems – Night Sights, Fire Control Systems, Driver’s Vision Enhancers, Family of Weapon Sights, Fused IR/I2 Systems, Unattended Ground Sensors, Soldier Systems, Hostile Fire Indicators (HFI); Active Protection Systems (APS); Counter-UAS systems.

Airborne Systems – Targeting/Navigation Pods, Targeting/Piloting Systems, Reconnaissance Systems, Infrared Countermeasures, Infrared Search and Track (IRST), Persistent Surveillance aerostats and fixed/rotary wing UAVs, Degraded Visual Enhancement (DVE) systems;

Naval Systems – optronic masts, thermal night sights, targeting systems and shipboard EO/IR;
Tactical Missile Seekers – air-to-air, surface-air, air-surface, ground-ground; smart munitions. Strategic Surveillance and Missile Defense – infrared satellite early warning systems and ballistic missile defense systems.
Upcoming upgrades to military infrared systems expected using T2SL/nBn technology


Improvements in the Uncooled Focal Plane Arrays (UFPA) are targeted toward higher pixel density and sensitivity. In February 2018, Teledyne Dalsa announced the initiation of its fabrication process for Wafer-Level-Packaged Vanadium Oxide (VOx) microbolometers for long-range infrared (LWIR) imaging. The price competitiveness for uncooled imagers has also been intensified by regional vendors offering low-cost solutions. Some of the major vendors in the uncooled thermal imaging market are FLIR Systems, Seek Thermal, BAE Systems, and Leonardo DRS.


The uncooled thermal imaging market valued at USD 2.5 billion is expected to grow substantially by 2024. The growth of this market is attributed to the increasing demand for uncooled thermal solutions for commercial applications. Developments in the uncooled technology coupled with the availability of low-cost cameras have led to the commercialization of such products, which was predominantly required by military and defense applications. The demand for uncooled technology can be attributed to the rising penetration in applications such as residential security, industrial imaging, and personal vision systems. Furthermore, the availability of HD resolution makes uncooled thermal solutions an ideal solution for high-resolution applications, such as military security and surveillance, perimeter protection, industrial detection, and automotive diagnostic. Moreover, they offer long-time services due to the presence of less moving parts.


The SWIR segment is projected to lead the thermal imaging market with the highest CAGR of 8.9% from 2020 to 2025. The growth is expected due to several advantages offered by SWIR, such as the ability to see through a glass, availability in small size, and ability to see the covert laser. Moreover, as the technological advancements and efforts to launch new low-priced SWIR cameras, is likely to increase the penetration of SWIR cameras.


Thermal modules are estimated to grow at the highest CAGR during the forecast period. The growth is estimated owing to their compact size, low cost, and flexibility to integrate with other devices such as drones, smartphones, and wearables, enabling them to penetrate in new application areas. Leonardo S.p.A. (Rome, Italy), and Leonardo DRS (US), BAE Systems (UK), and Xenics (Belgium) are the major manufacturer and supplier of thermal modules.


Regional Outlook

Region wise, the thermal imaging camera market trends is analyzed across North America (the U.S., Canada, and Mexico), Europe (Germany, the UK, France, Italy, and rest of Europe), Asia-Pacific (China, Japan, South Korea, India, and rest of Asia-Pacific), and LAMEA (Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa). Asia-Pacific is expected to exhibit at highest growth rate during the forecast period.


APAC is expected to grow at the highest CAGR during forecast period. The growth of the thermal imaging market in APAC is attributed to the presence of regional vendors in China and India, offering low-cost solutions, which in turn causes a decline in prices of thermal imaging products. Additionally, the increase in mass production of the thermal camera in China supports the growth of the market along with the presence of a number of OEMs as well as thermal imaging product manufacturers.


China emerging major player

Data by international market research company Yole Développement shows that four out of the top ten infrared thermal imaging companies are now Chinese, covering 44 percent of global market share in 2020, an increase of 29 percent year-on-year. Such extensive growth has led the company to issue a new forecast: by 2025, China’s share of the global infrared thermal imaging market will reach 64 percent.


Before 2018, the North American market accounted for more than 60 percent of the global share of infrared thermography products, with US companies accounting for seven of the world’s top 10 suppliers, industry research network reported in March, 2019.


The rise of Chinese manufacturers is due not only to China’s timely production resumption after a swift response to the virus outbreak, but also comes following China’s breakthrough in the research and development as well as mass production of the sensor, which is the core technology of the device, despite constant blockades from the US and some European countries, industry insiders said. Thermal imaging systems have been widely used in public spaces to detect high body temperatures during the COVID-19 pandemic for screening potential infections.


Meanwhile, although FLIR is the world’s largest supplier of infrared thermal imagers, its capacity expansion was hampered by the COVID-19 outbreak and it experienced a huge backlog of orders, with many US companies turning to Chinese suppliers with surplus production capacity in order to strengthen prevention and control for their internal staff, according to media reports.

Dali Technology, based in Hangzhou, East China’s Zhejiang Province, exported 20,000 infrared temperature measuring systems last year, a multi-fold increase from 2019, including in the US market.
“In the past, our core technologies, including chips, were all imported. However, with the strengthening of self-research and development, we began to reduce the import of foreign chips, and gradually fully realized the self-research and development of chips,” a manager with Dali Technology, surnamed Xue, told the Global Times on Friday.


The key players in this industry are FLIR Systems, Inc. (Oregon, US), Fluke Corporation (Washington, US), Leonardo S.p.A. (Rome, Italy), L3, HARRIS TECHNOLOGIES, INC. (Florida, US), and United Technologies (Connecticut, US) are the key players in the thermal imaging market. These players are increasingly undertaking strategies such as product launches & developments, expansions, partnerships, agreements, contracts, and mergers & acquisitions to increase their market share.



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