For many years, infrared vision was limited to government and laboratory applications, but the picture is rapidly changing. With the cost of thermal cameras decreasing, military, aerospace, and scientific applications have expanded and the world of infrared has exploded with innovative new uses for law enforcement, surveillance, commercial, and even consumer applications.
Integral to this expansion is the ability to zoom within the infrared spectrum. Users are accustomed to changing their field of view rapidly and conveniently within the visible spectrum; as they move to infrared, they expect the same.
Expanding Uses for IR
The military remains the largest buyer of infrared technology, but the tools we now provide to our forces are more powerful, and we can put them into the hands of more troops — highly precise IR to gather intelligence and assess situations from miles away. Soldiers can see people and weapons cloaked by darkness, smoke, fog, or camouflage. Zoom allows them flexibility and enables them to maintain target acquisition from far to near distance.
The same benefits apply to innovative uses off the battlefield, and provide many opportunities to improve productivity, decrease waste, and save lives. For example:
- Firefighters use IR to search out people in smoke-filled rooms, speeding rescue time and decreasing danger to themselves.
- Rescue helicopters can rapidly scan large areas for people lost at sea or on land, then zoom in to make an analysis of need. Long-wave infrared can see clearly through fog and smoke, enabling rescue in conditions that, in the past, made finding a person unlikely.
- High-resolution border and commercial surveillance, ranging many miles.
- Police can follow suspects from ground or air at night.
- Machine vision in bottling and other plants.
- In medicine, IR can determine if needles are properly inserted.
- Use in home inspections, where IR can determine if insulation needs to be replaced, water damage has occurred, or if mold or rot is present in the walls.
- Spectral filters can tell the presence or absence of chemicals or gases, and whether or not they are harmful.
IR in the Consumer Market
Infrared is also penetrating the consumer market, with IR in automobiles, cameras, and home surveillance. At present, the quality of most consumer infrared is low, and its capabilities limited. While cameras have come down in price due to manufacturing efficiencies, precision IR lenses are highly dependent on raw materials (e.g. Germanium) that are not manufactured, but rather are dug out of the ground. Our greatest challenge is the high cost of these base materials, which makes the IR lens a significant fraction of overall system cost. We and other lens manufacturers are attempting to reduce the amount of required material and thus reduce cost. At the moment, however, precision and price are closely linked; high-quality infrared lenses remain expensive as compared to their visible cousins.
We are just at the beginning of commercial, off-the-shelf infrared zoom lenses. Several years ago, our company created a Web site to offer stock IR zoom lenses and provide clear information about the pros and cons of the different infrared wavelengths. We hope this tool helps foster additional innovation that moves the industry forward.
We are excited about the future, and encourage further discussion and innovation as the demand for high-quality mainstream infrared increases.