Airborne infrared cameras

September 6, 2011 by Tim McAdams

Airborne law enforcement helicopters typically fly with a pilot and a tactical flight officer (TFO). The TFO communicates with ground units and operates the surveillance equipment. The pilot communicates with ATC and flies specific orbits and altitudes that maximize the TFO’s visibility of the suspect or scene. Both of these positions require good communications skills and the ability to work together as a team.

Recently I flew with Texas DPS in their Dallas based AS350 helicopter. The TFO was Clay Lacey and the pilot was Jim Rohrman. One of the interesting pieces of equipment they used was a gyro stabilized FLIR camera. The term FLIR stands for forward looking infrared, and is used to refer to a thermal imaging camera. FLIR cameras allow the TFO to see in total darkness by producing viewable images of invisible infrared energy. Infrared energy is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which we perceive as heat, so it is invisible to the naked eye. Some level of thermal energy is emitted from all people, objects, and material.

On the night I flew with Texas DPS we circled a fight in an apartment complex parking lot. Hearing the helicopter overhead some of the subjects walked into dark areas between the buildings probably thinking they couldn’t be seen. They were perfectly clear on the FLIR screen. Although no one ran, Clay explained that when they do it is very easy to follow them at night and direct ground units to apprehend them. In one case as ground units were surrounding a suspect he reached into his pants, removed a gun and threw it onto a building roof. The gun retained some of the heat from his body and the TFO caught it on his FLIR camera and directed the ground units to find it.

Both Clay and Jim have won awards for their work in apprehending criminals using a FLIR camera. To see a video of their work and how effective these cameras and crews are at apprehending suspects follow these links:

http://www.flir.com/cvs/americas/en/lawenforcement/visionawards/winners/2008/

http://www.gs.flir.com/visionawards/old/?id=1

3 Responses to “Airborne infrared cameras”

  1. Les Sharpe Says:

    Nothing new to me. I worked on first generation FLIR with laser ranging on the A6-E Intruder in 1978-79. A6-E TRAM (Target Recognition and Attack Multi-Sensor), It was equipped with the Hughes Aerospace DRS (Detection and Ranging Set). The DRS is what made TRAM special. The ‘ball’ under the nose. Primary on the device was the super-cooled (liquid helium) germanium detector for IR. A separate laser and bore-sighted detector for ranging, and a separator laser detector programmed to detect laser ‘spots’ on the ground for FAC (Forward Air Control) targeting. Bottom line? The CEP (Circular Proximity Error) for the A-6 went from 50′ to less than 10′. We could put a 500 lb. LGB (Laser Guided Bomb) through your bedroom window. Sweet dreams!

    It looked like new technology in the Iraq war. Not! I helped work out the bugs in the 70s. No regrets.

    US Navy – AQ5

  2. Alex Kovnat Says:

    Given that helium is a not-unlimited resource, I hope the newer generations of infrared sensors do not require liquid helium.

  3. Jim Borger Says:

    $15,000 will get you your own system that requires no cooling, suitable for any airplane or helicopter. Of course, it isn’t the same quality as the one in this blog but it does the job.

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