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FLIR cameras can help in the Gulf by “seeing” oil-on-water and detecting methane gas leaks
FLIR Systems, a company that has long been known for its innovative work in thermal imaging for military and security applications has partially “re-invented” itself by developing cutting-edge ways to use its imaging capabilities to “see” oil spills on the water’s surface and by detecting the dangerous leakage of methane gas -- like that which caused the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig – quicker than rival technologies.
“We live in that world,” Andy Teich, the president of FLIR Systems’ commercial vision systems division, told GSN in an exclusive interview earlier this month, “so every day we are discovering new applications for our thermal cameras.”
FLIR came upon its new interest in spotting oil-on-water in a round-about way, even before the environmental disaster began in the Gulf on April 20. According to Teich, FLIR had sold hundreds of its thermal cameras to a European company that had developed a profitable business transporting groceries and other everyday supplies to offshore oil rigs around the world. Two of FLIR’s cameras, which were mounted on each of this firm’s vessels, came in very handy as the small boats approached the giant oil rigs, especially at night.
One day, an employee of that European firm asked FLIR whether its thermal cameras could be used to see pollution on the water.
That was a good question, which inspired FLIR to get in touch with OHMSETT, the National Oil Spill Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility located in Leonardo, NJ, which operates the largest tank in the U.S. that can simulate various wave motions and test the movements of oil spilled on water. “They can run that tank at any ‘sea state’ you want, from zero to 5,” explained Teich.
FLIR already knew that its thermal cameras could distinguish oil and water because they each reflect the temperature of the sun differently. But FLIR was interested in delving more deeply into the behavior of oil on the water’s surface, so its engineers and programmers could try to develop a computer algorithm that might enable its thermal cameras to detect oil-on-water in an automated fashion.
Typically, without a thermal camera, humans can see oil-on-water during the day and in calm waters, but if the waters become turbulent or the sun goes down, it is much harder to see the oil on the water’s surface, said Teich.
After successfully testing its Star Safire thermal camera at sea state 5 at the OHMSETT facility, FLIR realized that its cameras could identify where the oil is -- in choppy waters and at night -- and could determine the overall size of a spreading spill.
After the Deepwater Horizon burst into flames and sank on April 20, FLIR quickly realized that its Star Safire cameras could be a big help to the U.S. Coast Guard, BP, other response and remediation companies working in the Gulf, and to some of the state and local governments trying to track the approaching oil. The Coast Guard was the most likely customer because it had already purchased hundreds of the cameras for unrelated missions, such as search-and-rescue and to “track the bad guys,” explained Teich. Star Safire cameras were already mounted to many Coast Guard helicopters.
FLIR is not precisely sure if and how its cameras are being deployed today to track the spread of oil throughout the Gulf. That’s because FLIR typically sells its products through nationwide distribution networks and it usually doesn’t gain a lot of information about its end-user customers. “Our cameras are an important element of a solution to this problem,” said Teich, who hesitated to make a bolder claim for the role his cameras are playing.
He knows that his Star Safires were used at the beginning of the catastrophe, when it was completely unknown in which direction the gushing oil might move. And he expects that his cameras will come into fashion at the tail-end of the years-long cleanup process, when BP and its contractors want to finish the remediation job. But at the moment, with tar balls washing up on dozens of beaches, finding the oil is among the least of BP’s worries.
“They have a strong backlog in their cleanup operation,” said Teich, with a bit of understatement. “So, they don’t have much of a problem finding the oil.”
The company’s success in identifying a new use for its thermal cameras has inspired it to look once again at the capabilities -- and some potential new applications – for its “gas-finder” camera. These innovative cameras can optically image methane gas when it leaks from a pipe entering a residential suburban home, just as it can detect methane gas leaking from the drilling operation on a gigantic offshore oil drilling rig, said Teich.
“If there were a broader use of gas-imaging technologies,” claimed Teich, “disasters like we saw in the Gulf could be voided. Remember, the whole thing began with a methane gas explosion.”
Other gas sniffers exist, Teich acknowledged, but they are very “point specific” and they take much longer to detect leaking gas. If gas-finder cameras from FLIR were mounted around the periphery of an oil drilling rig, he claimed, they could spot a methane leak long before it became dangerous.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering new regulations that might require optical-imaging of oil rigs, to watch for dangerous methane gas leaks, said Teich.
All this adds up to some exciting new market opportunities for a company that never stops hustling.