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The expanding scope of thermal imaging

EPA takes a look at new developments that are helping to drive forward the scope of thermal imaging technology in the electrical sector.

All objects that emit heat are also emitting energy and it is this energy that a thermal imaging camera captures. The technology requires no special lighting conditions. Indeed, it will work equally well in complete darkness.

Traditionally, thermal imaging cameras have been a costly expense, and were the preserve of dedicated thermographers, working for companies with large budgets. However, thermal imaging today is finding a wide, and increasing, scope in inspection applications. With entry level prices of less than £2,000, the technology is now also affordable and is available to every engineering discipline. As a result, it has become an important tool for electricians and electrical contractors. It has also become increasingly easy to apply, allowing users to do their job more quickly and with greater efficiency. 

It is not just advances in camera technology that are responsible for this growth. Parallel development in PC-based analysis and reporting software, as well as application specific software, is becoming increasingly significant.

Software development
Flir Systems tells us that it is now easy to create customised survey reports via software that is fully integrated with Microsoft Word. A wizard guides the user step-by-step through the process of combining all IR inspection data – infrared and visual images, temperature measurements and text notes – into a professional and easy to interpret maintenance report.

Simple dialogue boxes and drag-and-drop features allow the thermographer to superimpose a smaller IR image onto a visible light photo. It also enables this ‘picture-in-picture’ to be moved and re-sized anywhere in the image to show the level of detail required by the given application. Interval and blending fusion further enhance the detail so that highly sensitive or dangerous temperature developments are highlighted.

Flir also offers thermal imaging cameras which have built-in GPS and software has been developed that can automatically add the GPS co-ordinates into a report. It also works in tandem with Google Maps so the user can see a satellite image of the inspection site, can obtain address information and even travel directions.

New analysis features include predictive trending to enable the camera user to track thermal information relating to IR surveys.  Armed with this information, engineers are in a better position to determine when maintenance procedures need to be performed.  More advanced features include automatic formulae calculation and the instant creation of report summaries.

Meters talk to cameras
The inclusion of wireless technology is also playing its part in extending the scope of infrared. Portable meters can now transfer their measurement data directly to the infrared camera via Bluetooth. This brings greater intelligence to the IR environment.  Users can transmit key readings such as current or voltage from a clamp meter to a camera, making it possible to establish a relationship between heat and load.

Bluetooth technology is also being used to provide wireless headset connection to cameras for easier recording of voice comments associated with inspection. From find-it-fix-it models through to sophisticated high-end models, infrared cameras are getting smarter. Features that were once solely the preserve of the most expensive cameras are now starting to be incorporated into less sophisticated models.  For example, image streaming is now available in many mid-range cameras. 

This means that the user can watch a process at start-up and can acquire radiometric data at a reasonable speed. This allows a predictive maintenance camera to also be used for some research tasks. Periodic storage is another example, allowing snapshots to be taken at pre-determined intervals which lets the camera act as a watchman for a variety of applications.

The wide-ranging ability of today’s infrared camera gives the technology great cost-saving potential.  It is perfectly possible that a thermal imaging camera, whose principal job is electrical fault identification, can also be used to monitor the efficiency of waterpipes, inspect bearings, check-out the integrity of wall insulation or study a dynamic process.  The return on investment is accelerated with every application added to the list. 

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