Let’s talk about thermal imaging for night vision, sometimes called thermal vision devices.
What is thermal imaging?
Thermal imaging lets you use an electronic device to “see” temperature differences.
Infrared radiation (IR), sometimes called infrared light, is electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths longer than that of visible light.
That means you can’t see it with the naked eye. It is invisible.
And this sort of infrared radiation (heat) emanates from every object and the surrounding environment.
We call it “heat” but every object has a temperature – even very cold objects – and therefore some amount of IR radiation.
So, with the right electronic sensors we can create a visual image based on these heat differences.
Here’s some of the gear we are going to look at
Further, the differences in the temperature of objects in their environment are usually quite drastic – so you can actually get a fairly decent view.
When might this be handy? Well – there’s lots of things you can do with thermal imaging – like detecting temperature hotspots, remotely measuring the temperature of equipment, detecting people who have a fever, and more.
We’re going to discuss using thermal imaging for night vision specifically.
Before we move on, let’s clarify one important point.
Differences Between Thermal Imaging and IR Illuminators with Night Vision Devices
You may also be familiar with the IR Illuminators used in conjunction with Night Vision Goggles.
This sounds similar, but is actually a very different way to see at night.
An IR Illuminator projects near-infrared light – that is reflected by objects within a short to medium-range distance.
This reflected (invisible) light can be picked up and viewed with night vision devices that provide Image (or Light) Intensification.
Thus, these Infrared light sources can be used to augment the available ambient light for conversion by night vision devices.
Think of it like shining an invisible flashlight on a distant object.
But, it’s not a very stealthy way to see in the dark.
That’s because you are projecting an IR light that can be seen by anyone else with night vision goggles – including your opponent.
They’ll be able to pinpoint your location easily.
In this article we’re going to talk about thermal imaging specifically.
Because this is the stealthiest way to see at night – and in total darkness.
Advantages of Thermal Imagery
Unlike classic I2 (Image Intensification) technology, thermal imaging can be used in both daylight and darkness.
Thermal can also deal with haze and smoke.
And you can’t be blinded by bright light.
Some of these devices have a very long range.
Those are some of the benefits.
But, one of the downsides is the technology is quite expensive as compared to I2.
Before we look at some gear – there’s one last point we want to make.
Thermal Imaging Devices Fall Under ITAR
Most of the gear you are going to read about here falls under ITAR regulations.
That means if you are a US Citizen there’s nothing to stop you from buying or using it, but you CANNOT sell it, export it, or take it out of the country.
You also cannot let non-US citizens use it, or read the manuals – even on US territory.
ITAR is serious business – like jail time – so do your research before you purchase.
That’s enough theory – let’s look at some of the hardware available.
Thermal Imaging Monoculars
Let’s look at monoculars.
What’s the benefit of these as compared to a binocular?
One image tube means it’s lighter, easier to conceal, quicker to deploy – and may have better battery life too.
ATN makes seriously good night vision equipment.
The ATN OTS HD 640 Thermal Imaging Monocular is a very good thermal imaging monocular.
Resolution is 640×480, with a 50 Hz refresh rate – that’s cycles per second.
That’s good for thermal imagers – but not good compared to your 4K TV.
The above version is good for up to 10x magnification, but this one will do up to 50x – hence the much larger lens.
Use this hand-held, or mounted on a tripod.
It’s capable of taking pictures and video – so it’s a good choice for surveillance too.
It’s even got GPS and Wi-Fi built right in – or connect via your smartphone on Bluetooth
Get 8 hours of use out of four AA batteries.
Thermal Imaging Binoculars
You can also get thermal vision in binoculars.
The ATN Binox-4T Thermal Binocular is one example.
First of all, this is a thermal imaging binocular.
It provides a 384 x 288 resolution video images. And you can record these to an SD card, or stream to your phone or tablet – thanks to the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity.
ATN calls these “Smart Binoculars.”
But, here’s some other features.
This is a tool meant for hunting – so it has a laser rangefinder built in as well.
And, it has an IR Illuminator.
Why would you need that with a thermal imaging device?
You don’t – but your hunting party may have night vision (Image intensification) devices – and this will let you illuminate an area or target for them.
Here’s another binocular option.
The Pulsar Accolade LRF XQ38 Thermal Binocular is a great thermal binocular.
It has 1,475 yard range – in daylight or total darkness.
The video image is 384×288 resolution with a 50 Hz (cycles per second) refresh rate – so it should have a detailed, smoothly updating image.
This model also includes a laser rangefinder.
These provide 3.1 to 12.4x magnification and have different color modes.
Having a variety of options, such as “White hot” “black hot” red monochrome, sepia, “red hot” rainbow, violet and “ultramarine” will help you identify targets more easily.
Lastly, these are IPX7 fully waterproof rated – which means they are submersible up to 3ft for 30 minutes.
That’s important for any gear you are going to use in the field.
Thermal Imaging Scopes and Sights
There are a variety of thermal imaging options for rifle scopes and sights as well.
Here’s the Sig Sauer ECHO1 Thermal Reflex Sight.
This type of sight is a reflex sight – it allows rapid target acquisition with a relatively wide view of whatever you are aiming at (compared to a scope.)
Resolution of the image is 206×156 Pixels with a 30 Hz (cycles per second) refresh rate – this is decent, but not stellar.
A reflex sight normally doesn’t offer magnification – but thermal imaging uses a LCD display – so there is a 2x digital zoom option.
You can also mount a backup sight on top of this – shown here is a Sig Sauer ROMEO1 sight.
You might need the backup sight if the thermal image isn’t clear enough, if the batteries are dead, or if you experience a technical malfunction.
Having the backup sight is probably a good idea.
Like many thermal vision products – you can take pictures with this device.
The color LCD can be configured for white hot or black hot, and offers 8 color palettes.
There are 5 different options for the targeting reticle.
It mounts on any picatinny rail.
Runtime is 8 hours plus using CR123 batteries, and this is IPX-6 waterproof.
Reviews indicate this is affordable device is great for hog hunting.
For a true rifle scope with thermal imaging, we’d recommend the ATN ThOR-HD Thermal Smart HD Rifle Scope.
First of all, it’s a true rifle scope for long range shooting with a 4.5 – 18x magnification.
And it’s got a high resolution (384×288 Pixels) thermal image. Compare that pixel count to that of the reflex sight we looked at previously.
But, this is also a “smart” scope.
Thermal imagers are basically mini-computers – so why not put all that high-powered computer processing to good use?
The scope includes an integrated ballistics calculator – use it to account for wind speed and direction, incline angle, and distance. It will work with your smartphone.
And, this device is Wifi/GPS/Bluetooth enabled.
You can also record video. (If you are seeing a trend here – it’s obvious – because these thermal imagers are pure digital devices it is very easy to add video and picture functionality.
Mount this on any picatinny rail and get 8+ hours of use with AA batteries.
Highly recommended by hog hunters.
Thermal Imaging Goggles
You might be wondering – can I get goggles that do thermal imaging?
Goggles offer the ultimate in hands-free flexibility and perfect for tactical use.
Unfortunately, that’s not really an option with Thermal Imaging.
There just aren’t any options.
But, how about this – there are devices that fuse together traditional light amplification technology (using ambient light) with thermal imagery.
The EOTech ENVG Enhanced Night Vision Goggle is a very unique product.
It’s described as being a “dual waveband” monocular night vision device.
That’s because it fuses thermal imagery from radiated IR with image intensification (I2) technology – for the best of both worlds.
You can use this with the I2 image only, the thermal image, or both “fused” together.
What does this look like? Here’s a video from the PEO (Program Executive Office). This device in US Military use is known as the AN/PSQ-20
You can use this device helmet-mounted or hand-held.
But, it is expensive.
It’s also only for sale to law enforcement or government agencies.
Other Thermal Imaging Devices
There’s more too – cameras and other devices.
Thermal Imaging for Night Vision – In Summary
Historically, thermal imaging equipment has been pretty exotic hardware – with limited real-world applications.
But, as with all technology – it is getting cheaper, smaller, and better by the day.
There’s an interesting array of Thermal Imaging devices available for tactical purposes and shooting enthusiasts.
And it might surprise you just how affordable it is (relatively speaking) – if you’ve got a true need for it.
International Traffic in Arms Regulations (“ITAR,” 22 CFR 120-130). These implement the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) – this is a long read, but interesting.
Some photos in this article are provided by the manufacturers, and are property of the manufacturers.
The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.