By Jo McIntyre
Small Times Correspondent
Sept. 13, 2001 — Firefighters in New York City are using thermal imaging cameras, equipped with sensors made with MEMS technology, to help them in their search and rescue operations in the rubble of the World Trade Center.
Thermal imaging cameras (TICs) use military infrared
|MEMS are used in the|
manufacture of this
infrared detector, the
sensor that is the
heart of the camera.
Ben DeMaria, vice president of human resources and corporate communications for the Pittsburgh-based Mine Safety Appliances Co., said his firm won a citywide bid from New York City recently for firefighting equipment, including thermal imaging cameras, which the company manufactures.
“We have a lot of presence there and have sent a lot of materials in the past 24 hours,” he said Wednesday. “Not just the cameras, but also breathing apparatus, respirators and other safety and firefighting equipment. We just shipped some more there recently. Also, we have people on site being trained to use the cameras now.”
Other fire departments throughout the region have converged on the city to help as well, and many of them also have such cameras, either mounted on helmets or handheld.
Tom Cossey, thermal imaging product manager for distributor Scott Health and Safety, of Monroe, N.C., said Scott has sold infrared cameras on helmets to fire departments in Troy, N.Y., and Chesterfield County in Virginia, 90 miles from Washington, D.C.
Scott sells TICs made by FLIR Systems Inc. of Portland, Ore. FLIR makes several products used in anti-terrorist applications and search and rescue operations.
Jim Fitzhenry, senior vice president and general counsel for the company, said FLIR products also have been used in disaster relief contexts for several years.
“It is relevant technology as the debate begins to focus on what can be done to prevent this kind of thing,” he said. “We’re not terrorism experts, but (we do know that) the more surveillance one does, the less search and rescue one has to do.”
Many FLIR products are made using MEMS technology. Specifically, “in the manufacture of our uncool detector, which has infrared technology that does not require cryogenic cooling,” said Andy Teach, senior vice president of sales and marketing. This detector makes up “about half of our products made using that technology.”
The FBI used FLIR’s thermal imaging cameras to help search for victims and survivors in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, as well as in other disasters. “I am assuming those products are being used again, also for search and rescue,” he said.
FLIR makes thermal imaging and stabilized camera systems for a variety of applications, including airborne observation and broadcast, search and rescue, surveillance and reconnaissance, border and maritime patrol and ground-based security.
Customers include all branches of the U.S. military, and most federal law enforcement agencies, as well as television networks. About half of FLIR’S sales are international, Teach said.
The company has a leading position in the commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) market, unlike those of larger competitors, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. The cameras are fully developed, ready to use and less expensive than the typical Department of Defense contractors, who don’t offer COTS products.
FLIR’s new product development focuses on cost reduction and performance improvement, which includes smaller, lighter and enhanced capabilities, including use of microelectronic machining technology. Specifically, MEMS are used in the manufacture of the infrared detector, the sensor that is the heart of the camera.
Cameras are also used in airport security systems, both for perimeter security and to search individuals. Individuals entering the airport can be scanned with the infrared devices for cold spots that could indicate they were carrying dangerous devices. Perimeter security applications are used to make sure people aren’t getting out on the tarmac, Teach said
Also, television helicopters are using FLIR’s UltraMedia broadcast systems mounted on helicopters providing aerial views for the networks.
To make protection worthwhile, it has to be capable of all-weather imaging and 24-hour surveillance. It needs to be able to see in day, night, rain, smoke and smog conditions. “We’re the only technology that offers that capability,” Teach said.
FLIR is collaborating with another company that makes MEMS infrared detectors, with the goal of offering fire and police departments more affordable search and rescue cameras. Sarcon Microsystems Inc. plans to begin producing its infrared imaging components in a year for use in FLIR products.
Sarcon’s investors include Ardesta LLC, the parent company of Small Times Media.
Don Perrine, president and chief executive of Sarcon, said current infrared cameras are very good for imaging bodies through fire, smoke or amid rubble, but their high cost can be prohibitive for rescue agencies. Cameras can cost between $10,000 and $20,000 for use in fires, he said, and twice that for surveillance purposes.
“Their biggest problem is they’re expensive,” he said, which limits the number of life-saving cameras a department can own. “We will supply detectors with better performance and lower cost for infrared cameras to make them more available.”
Sarcon, based in Knoxville, Tenn., will begin pilot production in 2002. It hopes to market its detectors to the automotive industry for technology that helps drivers see better in dark or foggy conditions and eventually for other consumer applications.
Mine Safety recorded its second quarter 2001 net income at $7 million, or 59 cents a share, compared with second quarter 2000 net income of $2.8 million or 22 cents per share. Net sales for the period were $135 million, compared with $122 million in the second quarter of 2000.
FLIR had net earnings for the second quarter ended June 30 of $5.6 million, or 36 cents a diluted share. That compared to a net loss of $6.6 million, or 45 cents a share, for the second quarter of 2000. Revenue for the quarter was $51.4 million, as compared to $52.6 million for last year’s second quarter.
In addition, there are other small-tech systems in development that could be used for search and rescue operations similar to the ones in New York and Washington, D.C.
The Center for NanoSpace Technologies Inc., a nonprofit research foundation based in Huffman, Texas, submitted a proposal to the Federal Aviation Administration for a MEMS- and nanotechnology-based sensing tool that could be used in search and rescue missions.
Steve Watson, the center’s chief executive and a former CIA agent, said the device is an “electronic sniffer” that was developed to detect traces of bombs and biowarfare products but could be adapted to find people buried in rubble.
“It could be used for search and rescue,” he said, “but its primary use is to prevent the disaster in the first place.”
He submitted the proposal about a month ago and already has built a proof of concept device. The FAA is evaluating it as well as other approaches to improve air traffic security.
(Small Times Senior Writer Candace Stuart contributed to this report.)