Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Owl Eyes

By Mark W. Danielson

In darkness, people become helpless.  The slightest noise stirs the imagination.  Unexpected touches trigger panicked screams.  One of Hollywood’s greatest suspense movies, Wait Until Dark, brilliantly played upon our fear of blackness.  It’s no wonder scientists and inventors collaborated to devise a thermal imaging camera better known as infrared or IR.  IR levels the playing field with nocturnal creatures like the owl whose eyes are 100 times more sensitive in low light than our own.

Thermographic cameras form images by using the IR radiation that operates in long wavelengths.  While IR cameras have become commonplace for military, police, firefighter, news media, hunters, and airline applications, its development actually dates back to 1929 when Hungarian physicist Kálmán Tihanyi invented the electronic television camera for anti-aircraft defense in Britain.  This IR technology was further developed for military use during the Korean War and was not declassified until 1956. 

IR energy is a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum that encompasses radiation from gamma rays, x-rays, ultra violet, and various wavelengths that include microwave and radio.  Because all objects emit a certain level of radiation as a function of their temperature, the higher the temperature, the better an IR camera can detect and convert the radiation into thermal imaging.  Whether in total darkness or a smoke-filled building, IR vision is better than an owl’s because ambient light is not a factor.

When people think of thermal imaging, they tend to think of military operations because they are used to seeing green “night vision” images on the evening news, but it can also produce ranges of color to show levels of heat.  IR cameras have proved ideal for search and rescue, localizing fire hot spots, detecting energy leaks, road hazards, viruses from elevated body temperature, even ghost hunting.  But with ghost hunting, hunters must beware that their own heat signatures can linger long enough to create false impressions.   

In the last few decades, engineers have taken IR imaging to even higher levels by adapting it to commercial aviation use.  The above photo shows an MD-11 head’s up display turning night into day revealing hazardous terrain, weather, and locating runways in minimal weather.  This image, taken while descending through 32,600 feet, clearly defines the horizon, clouds, cities, section lines, rivers, even an airplane – the bright dot just to the right of the “300” on the left hand side.  While using thermal imaging, pilots can taxi aircraft in total darkness, see heat plumes from running engines, and clearly make out the taxiway and runway even in a (God forbid) smoke-filled cockpit.  Similarly, IR vision allows military pilots to complete their missions in blackout conditions without being visually detected by the enemy.  For civilian airline applications, infrared is a definite safety enhancement.  For military operations, it is a matter of survival.    

There are plenty of great opportunities to include IR vision in novels.  If you've used it before, how about sharing?  


Jaden Terrell said...

Thanks for the information on IR, Mark. Even though I keep Jared as low tech as possible for fear of making ridiculous mistakes, I can't help thinking of ways he could use this seriously cool technology.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Beth, if you or anyone else ever needs someone to review a part of a story that involves flying for accuracy, I'd be happy to do so.

Jaden Terrell said...

I will take you up on that, Mark--especially in light of my recent "editing trauma," LOL.