Thermal Imaging Technology

28 October 2020

View the world in a different way: discover more about the many applications of Leonardo's infra-red detectors and thermal imaging sensors.

World class technology developed over 65 years

For more than six decades in the UK, Leonardo has developed secure communications and surveillance systems including thermal imaging technology, leading the industry with the UK’s first military standard production thermal imaging sensor in the form of the TICM (Thermal Imaging Common Modules).

Today, Leonardo’s infra-red detectors and thermal imaging sensors, manufactured at the company’s Southampton and Basildon sites, play a crucial role in supporting military and security clients operating in the most challenging environments. Maintaining the company’s world-class reputation in this high-technology area has been down to Leonardo’s continued investment in innovation: be it growing IR-detecting semi-conductor materials that produce high-definition focal plane arrays, advanced electronics or high-performance lens assemblies that provide extended identification ranges in harsh operational environments.

Defence Applications

Leonardo’s capability to deliver solutions for defence applications is based on extensive experience in the core IR technology elements, including the manufacture of high-performance thermal imaging sensors (such as the company’s Horizon and SLX Hawk products), the development of stabilised EO directors, image processing algorithms, platform and mission system integration expertise all of which are currently supporting a variety of land, naval and avionic platforms.

Leonardo’s Titan EO Turret provides the 24-hour surveillance capability for the UK’s fleet of Chinook helicopters. Largely provided as part of an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR), the TI surveillance performance provided by Titan delivered a fundamental capability for the platform to operate under zero light level (red-illume) conditions contributing to mission success and saving lives during operations in Afghanistan.

Defence Codex - Issue 12 - "Titan keeps Chinook in flight on darkest of nights"

Leonardo’s SLX-Hawk camera provides the thermal imaging capability for the Automatic Small-Calibre Gun (ACGS) system that provides protection for many of the Royal Navy’s vessels, the GSA8 Fire Control System for the Type 23 Frigate and the flight path monitoring system for the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carrier.

Securing Borders

21st century homeland security is a complex and exhaustive operation and Leonardo provides multi-functional integrated solutions, based on state-of-the-art technologies, including border forces with extended sensor coverage and surveillance capability.

Our thermal cameras play an increasingly key role in border protection, alongside other technologies such as radars. The Horizon Medium Wave Infra-Red (MWIR) thermal imaging sensor employs the latest focal plane array technology to meet long-range surveillance and target identification requirements. It can detect vehicles at up to 50km and personnel up to 30km, enabling a single camera to monitor hundreds of square kilometres of terrain.

Our thermal imaging, integrated into the NERIO LR (Long Range) and ULR (Ultra-Long Range) family of Surveillance and Threat Acquisition products, provide an enabling capability for the provision of Border Security and Critical Infrastructure Protection.

The sophistication and technological advancement of our cameras have demonstrated in these arenas has attracted attention from new markets where our technology again can literally be called ‘game changing’!

Capturing rare wildlife nocturnal behaviours for BBC documentaries

The BBC is just one of the organisations to have discovered the power and value of Leonardo’s thermal imaging sensors by adapting them to bring a new perspective to wildlife documentary series.

SLX Merlin cameras enabled BBC production teams on AutumnWatch and The Great British Year to capture previously unseen nocturnal animal behaviours around the UK. This included footage of owls hunting, along with badgers, foxes, hares, rabbits, bats and voles all going about their lives under the cover of darkness.

Due to its all-weather capability, the technology delivered high quality images, regardless of weather conditions or time of day. Producers also used the SLX Hawk camera for spotting and cueing the cameramen.

Even more dramatically, the thermal imaging cameras helped deliver award-winning footage of leopards hunting in Mumbai, as part of Planet Earth 2, presented by Sir David Attenborough. More recently, the cameras captured footage of European wolves for the BBC's Seven Worlds, One Planet series.

In order to adapt the equipment for these unique filming environments, Leonardo modified and developed the SLX Merlin into a one-man portable system, usable straight from the box with minimal instruction. This involved creating a solution comprising a touchscreen tablet at the rear of the imager enabling the cameraman to control the focus, zoom and gain. A mounted miniature video recorder allowed the cameraman to be self-sufficient in the field.

Uncovering unknown behaviours and physiology of bats

In summer 2019, the Merlin and Horizon cameras were used as part of a BBC wildlife documentary called 'Inside the Bat Cave' which captured the flights sequences of Greater Horseshoe bats, using thermal imaging. Leonardo's Ian Baker, a specialist in filming bats using thermal cameras, joined the programme's crew at Bryanstan in Dorset. Using an exposure time of 1/1000ths second to reveal details in the bats (that fly at up to 5 m/s), combined with powerful noise reduction software, the BBC team was able to reveal previously unknown behaviour and physiology. This included discovering that pups and adults can be distinguished from their thermal patterns.


Ensuring out is out

Elsewhere in the ‘field’, international cricket introduced new technology in November 2006 – as part of the Ashes Test Series in Australia – in an effort to deliver accurate umpiring decisions.

BBG Sport’s ‘Hot Spot’ was designed to enable a third umpire to review a dubious decision on screen, by using an infra-red imaging system to determine whether the ball has struck the batsman, bat or pad. Trials continued in the following years, before BBG Sport introduced a new generation of Hot Spot, underpinned by Leonardo’s SLX Hawk thermal imaging camera, in 2012.

The cameras provide sharper images with improved sensitivity and much less motion blur than earlier Hot Spot technology, resulting in the new system detecting much finer edge touches than in previous seasons. Such has been the success of the technology, that Leonardo now has an exclusivity agreement into which it now provides the Horizon HD thermal imaging sensor.

Continued innovation

Maintaining Leonardo’s continued status as a world-class producer of IR Detectors and thermal imaging sensors is down to the company’s ongoing investment in innovation and commitment to research and development.

The new Superhawk detector represents the world’s first HD detector released to market adopting a very small (8µm) pixel pitch which will provide increased performance for smaller sized thermal imaging sensors.

Our ongoing investment in both the technology and world class facilities will see Leonardo continue to design and manufacture the best thermal imaging solutions in the world.