Cole Burdette, chief tactical flight officer with the Los Angeles Police Department Air Support Division remembers the day a few years back when a supermarket robbery quickly turned into a heated shoot-out between suspects and surveillance officers. Two of the suspects were shot, recalls Burdette. "One officer remained in the car and one ran out into the perimeter with the remaining suspects. So we have one suspect who's down in the car upon our arrival, and we have three suspects outstanding."
Helicopter and search teams quickly went to work, setting a large perimeter of about seven blocks. When Burdette arrived on scene in a helicopter equipped with a thermal imaging camera, they quickly spotted the first suspect attempting to break into a house and alerted officers to his location. Meanwhile, two more men remained at large.
"You could just imagine, suspects that are known to be armed and you've just been in a shoot-out with them, and now you've got K-9 handlers and SWAT officers going in. The level of danger [the officers] are involved in is great," says Burdette. Within 5 minutes of being in station, search crews located one suspect hiding in bushes behind a garage. They spotted the next suspect on the roof of another garage, crouching beneath a tree.
Burdette credits the thermal imaging device with helping officers locate the suspects quickly and with little additional danger to ground patrol. "Because of the [thermal imaging device] they were able to coax him out and take him into custody without further incident."
Thermal imaging cameras aren't just for SWAT teams anymore. Aside from use in search and rescue missions, the cameras can locate "hot" cars and even detect potential grow operations. Law enforcement agencies take note: Once considered an expensive albeit useful tool, today's units are falling in cost and at the same time, adding more features to their list.
Everything in the world has infrared energy in it. Thermal technology allows users to capture and view a heat signature, while an electric process transfers that signature to a visual image. Unlike night vision, thermal imaging can "see through" smoke and dust, and is not restricted by vegetation and light brush. The device can be used anytime — day or night — and its picture continues to get sharper. Andy Teich, president of Commercial Vision Systems at FLIR, says the first thing users will likely notice about newer models is that the imaging performance is four times the resolution of cameras previously on the market.
"You can think of it sort of like a digital camera," Teich says in terms of quality improvement. He also notes units have other built-in electronic features like digital wireless transmission, which allows users to transmit video to remote locations, onboard image storage for JPEG images and movie recording.
In addition to clearer pictures and added features, new designs are also touting all-in-one use on a number of applications. ATN offers thermal imaging systems that can be handheld or put on a goggle system for hands-free operation. Some systems can also be weapons-mountable, helmet-mountable and used as a weapons sight. James Munn, executive vice president of American Technologies Network, Corp. (ATN) out of San Francisco, also notes they are consistently "working on getting the unit smaller and more compact."
The recent trend of adding thermal imaging capabilities to civilian vehicles is partly responsible for driving the high volume for the technology — somewhat like what happened with the GPS boom — which is good news for law enforcement folks. "Infrared imaging technology is going through very much the same process right now [as GPS]," says Teich. "It went through a dual-use phase where it was being used by the industry in the '90s, and in the last couple years it's moved into the consumer space where we're selling it to boaters, and we have a contract with BMW where it's used as an application that allows you to see five-times further than your high beam headlights. We have software running that will automatically detect if a pedestrian or animal is venturing towards the vehicles and alerts the driver.