Have you ever watched any of those war movies or cop shows on TV where a helicopter or plane is equipped with night vision, and the bad guys have nowhere to hide? Well hold on to your shift knob, because the exact same techno-dazzle is now available for your custom ride. Yup, you can have your very own FLIR (Forward Looking InfraRed) night vision system, right there in your dash and you don’t need to fly an AH-64A/D Apache Longbow attack helo to get one!
Infrared energy is only a small part of a complete range of radiation called the electromagnetic spectrum. This spectrum is made up of gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet light, visible light, infrared, microwaves (RADAR) and radio waves. The only difference between all these various types of waves is their wavelength, or frequency. All of the different types travel at the same speed, which is the speed of light, or approximately 186,000 miles per second in a vacuum like space.
Infrared radiation makes up a much greater percentage of the spectrum than visible light, and has wavelengths longer than visible light, but shorter than radar waves. The primary source of infrared radiation is heat. Any object that has a measurable temperature emits infrared radiation. Even very cold objects, like an ice cube, still emit infrared energy. Infrared cameras produce an image of invisible infrared or “heat radiation” unseen by the human eye.
There are no colors or shades of gray in infrared, only varying intensities of radiated energy. The infrared imager converts this heat energy into an image with contrasting shades of gray that we can make sense of. The process is properly described as “thermal imaging”, and instead of using visible light to allow us to see, the thermal imager uses nothing but infrared radiation to create images that look sort of like black and white pictures. The contrast in the image is created by the differences in temperature of the objects in the image. With a thermal imager, warm things appear as light gray to white, and cooler objects are darker to black.
There are a few different kinds of these technologies available, but true thermal images such as this FLIR system should not be confused with infrared “illuminator” cameras. These cameras do not produce the same images, because they do not detect heat. They operate in wavelengths near visible and require an IR “illuminator” to provide an image. These cameras are very economical, but seldom have range beyond about five meters, making them useless for most vehicle applications.
BMW has offered FLIR night vision since 2006, and currently offers FLIR’s thermal technology coupled with pedestrian detection in their 2009 BMW 7 series. It automatically alerts the driver to hazards approaching the road. Honda is also working on a similar night vision system for Japan market cars, and I believe in a few years, more cars will come with the thermal technology because it makes driving at night so much safer. Eventually it could be as commonplace as the radio, simply because it makes so much sense. If you frequently drive at night, or in low visibility conditions, you should really consider checking this new high tech system out. With several dealers around the country and around the world, the systems are not difficult to purchase or use. See some cool videos of this system in action and learn more at www.flir.com