Thermal imaging technology may seem like an unlikely hero, but Massachusetts police relied on infrared images taken by a FLIR camera to track down Dzhokar Tsarnev, the alleged bomber. During the 20-hour manhunt for Tsarnev, police ordered a citywide curfew to ensure citizens stayed at home and out of danger.

At 8.15pm on April 19th, the police had eyes on a man corned in a boat. A Massachusetts State Police helicopter, equipped with a thermal imaging camera, recorded an infrared video clearly showing the outline of the suspect hiding under some plastic sheeting. The camera operator reported details of the suspect’s movements to colleagues on the ground to allow for the negotiators to get in safely. A robot was also used to lift the tarpaulin boat cover to enable police detectives to approach the suspect securely. During a news conference, Police Colonel Timothy Alben commended the thermal imaging technologies as a key element of the operation.

So how does it work? The camera in question was the FLIR Star Safire, an H-D surveillance system costing around £350,000, though cheaper, less accurate cameras can be purchased on the internet for around £1000. The Star Safire uses a combination of a laser rangefinder and thermal imaging sensor which combine to give very precise images of surface temperature. Luckily for the Massachusetts operation, the tarpaulin boat cover was thin enough that some heat was transmitting through it, enabling the camera operator to detect a clear heat signature.

Even more recently, Oklahoma police have used handheld thermal cameras in the wake of the enormous tornado which ripped through the city of Moore earlier this week. A vital tool in the rescue effort, thermal imaging cameras allow the first emergency responders on the scene to access areas which would otherwise be hazardous or impenetrable.

The tools have a varied array of uses, from search and rescue to hidden fire identification, though unfortunately do not allow rescuers to see through walls. This was cited as a downside by Bob Athanas, of the New York City Fire Department, in an interview with CBS News. He commented that the uses for the technology are ‘limited,’ as the cameras are unlikely to pick up on people stuck in pockets inside the wreckage.

Thermal Imaging Technology

These days, thermal imaging cameras have been rolled out in most emergency service units, but there are many more everyday uses of infrared systems. Audi, for example, introduced a revolutionary ‘Night View Assist’ feature on the Audi A8 vehicles in 2010. The function captures thermal radiation output using a thermographic camera built into the car behind the iconic four-ring symbol at the front. If the car detects a heat signature from a person or animal which is moving in a way that might cause a collision, the system delivers an audible warning to the driver.

Infrared light technology has advanced exponentially over the last ten years and is now much more portable and also drastically cheaper to purchase. With uses ranging from pest control to saving human lives, the thermal imaging camera is an increasingly vital tool in many modern industries.