AVAILABLE from local thermal imaging tech house Infratherm, the DRS WatchMaster IP Elite thermal camera offers integrators and security managers the awesome fundamentals of thermal imagers – the ability to detect and confirm intrusion at very long range with no support from expensive-to-run lighting sources – in a compact form factor and at an affordable price.
I like thermal cameras and the more affordable they get the more I like them. They won’t give face recognition but what they do give is confirmation and general identification of intrusion at extreme ranges and in appalling conditions. They can see in total darkness, peer over water courses or bays and carve through rain, mist, fog and smoke.
This new Watchmaster IP Elite is a particularly good example. It’s built by specialist thermal manufacturer DRS. It’s weatherproof, tamperproof, networkable, can be integrated into ONVIF compliant VMS solutions or NVRs or just fire you an email or text intrusion alert.
I’m checking out the camera with Infratherm’s John Robinson, Brad Ballesty and Matt Nolan at the company’s office and workshop at Castle Hill in Sydney. We view images on screen in the board room across a LAN connected to a camera mounted on the outside of the building and looking across the carpark.
But before we charge into the specifications and performance of the WatchMaster IP Elite, I can’t help dropping anchor over the distributor for a moment longer. Based in Sydney, Infratherm has spent decades building up a portfolio of high quality solutions including forward looking infrared cameras, infrared thermal cameras, HD thermal imagers, thermal imaging, and radiometric systems and analytics.
According to Infratherm’s CEO John Robinson, something that makes the company special is the fact it’s not a single source supplier. Instead it carries a gilt-edged basket of products from makers like General Dynamics, Opgal, ExacqVision, OD Security, Jenoptik, RVision, Controp, Nova Sensors, L3, SRI International, DRS, NEC, Santa Barbara Infrared, Meprolight and JetProtect Corporation.
Unlike single source suppliers restricted to their principal’s range of products only, Infratherm matches customers’ needs from a global network of suppliers to provide a specific and cost effective solution for their customers. What this means is that instead of trying to fit square pegs into rounds holes, Infratherm focuses on offering customers a selection of options closest to their needs, allowing them to select on the basis of product strengths. The company then hangs around and makes sure the solutions work and it specialises in tough niche applications.
It’s an interesting business model for a number of reasons but for me what’s most striking is that it’s based on an elevated level of customer service and support that’s likely to become more common as suppliers try to differentiate themselves from their competition.
“We try to stay ahead of the technology curve, to understand what the emerging technologies,” explains Robinson. “We’ve done that for 20 years. If we decide we need to form a relationship with a supplier we do it very early. This ensures we have a good understanding of the technology and we can set customers expectations correctly in terms of time and performance, which is very important to us.
“We also have a history of training people how to use technology properly and helping them to maintain their solutions – and we don’t carry anything we can’t fix. That’s just the way we do things. You can see old cameras around the place we are in the middle of repairing. This stems from the fact that when the business began, our clients depended on very expensive equipment for their livelihood.”
WatchMaster IP ELITE
Now we know the distributor a bit better, let’s take a look at DRS’ WatchMaster IP Elite thermal camera. This unit is tubular, 25cm long and with a 9cm diameter. There’s a snub-nosed poly sun shade that pops on and off using hand pressure.
Overall the housing is simple. On the rear are analogue (NTSC/PAL) and RJ45 (H.264/MJPEG) ports and a bracket attaches to the base of the camera for installation. And that’s pretty much the ball game. All the other adjustables are software-based.
The housing feels in my hands to be a particularly heavy poly. There’s no window to this housing. Instead the metal black-coated lens is exposed, an unusual design element in a thermal camera and something that contributes to its low cost.
The housing colour is security industry beige and weight is 1.5kg. The camera comes in 3 lens configurations, the smaller the number the longer the range, the more expensive the camera. The lens options are 40-degrees (effective focal length 7.5mm), 16-degrees (19mm) and 9-degrees (35mm) and each is a fully sealed, hard carbon-coated athermalized fixed-focus lens with horizontal field views supported by a 4x digital PTZ.
While the marketing material doesn’t say it, WatchMaster IP probably employs DRS’ proprietary umbrella-configuration antiresonant microbolometer. As opposed to the single-layer standard configurations of some other manufacturers, the umbrella has 2 layers and to increase pixel fill-factor, the absorbing layer is separated from the readout circuitry.
The result is a somewhat more complex optical stack that’s formed between the absorbing layer, readout layer, and substrate layer. The substrate layer is coated with a metallic reflector to create a gap with the absorber layer, while the gap spacing between the readout layer and the other 2 layers can be fabricated to further optimize the spectrum.
In this case DRS is using a proprietary uncooled microbolometer with a resolution of 320 x 240 pixels (the 640 x 480 is being released this month at ISC West), a Vanadium Oxide (VOx) readout layer offering a detector pitch of 17um and an undefined dielectric absorber. This configuration offers broad absorption of >50 per cent, a relative spectral response from 8-14um and a minimum sensitivity down to 50 milliKelvin.
Frame rate can be configured up to 30fps or fixed at 9fps and importantly, the camera has 2GB local storage onboard which is supported by basic video motion detection. There are also 16 programmable regions of interest.
Once connected, the camera can be viewed and controlled using the DRS web interface (which is what we use in this demo) or any other ONVIF-compliant video management system. Adjustments include an Image Contrast Enhancement (ICE) functionality to provide additional contrast and edge enhancement to bring out all image details including distant objects. Image polarity is software selectable between white hot and black hot.
From the point of view of the installer, WatchMaster IP ELITE is a fixed-mount, fixed-focus security camera with a standard mounting hole pattern. It’s pretty much plug and play, too, with Power over Ethernet (PoE), 802.3af compliance. Power consumption is a measly 12.95 watts over a single CAT-5e cable. This is pretty amazing given the 1000m range (for motor vehicles) and 400m range (for people) the camera offers.
“This is our entry level thermal camera,” explains Infratherm’s Brad Ballesty, who joined the company 6 months ago and shows clear signs of thoroughly enjoying the flexibility and product-wow factor he’s found in his new role.
“Watchmaster IP is a DRS camera – DRS has been in the thermal business for 50 years, mainly as a military supplier but about 3 years ago it decided to take its technology to the commercial market.”
According to Ballesty, the 40-degree view of the camera we are looking at will pick up a human shape (1800 x 500mm) at 370m and identify arms and legs at 70m. Just as impressively, the WatchMaster IP Elite can detect a vehicle at 1000m.
“The price has come down substantially and because of the enormous range of these thermal cameras there is a commercial market in modern CCTV applications,” Ballesty says.
“The detection distances with thermal are excellent. You can go past a large distribution centre and see dozens of PTZs supported by expensive to run lighting around a massive perimeter. With thermal, I can put 4 cameras on the same perimeter with no lighting and cover more area in a wider range of conditions.
“And if the thermal cameras are installed on the building itself – which they can be given the greater range these cameras possess – there is no trenching and no perimeter cabling, no need to take network links to the perimeter and mess around with fibre or wireless links.
“Thermal cameras cost more but you save everywhere else,” Ballesty explains. “There are no poles, lights, trenches, perimeter cables for power or network. And the cameras take the place of a perimeter detection system.
“These cameras can be used to activate recorded warnings, provide an alert before intrusion – before there’s a no fence cut, no alarms have gone off. These cameras can also pick up fires at very large distances – including bushfires – and they can detect a build up of heat in electrical plants.”
Especially useful, the WatchMaster Elite IP can send emails and inform security managers, control rooms or business owners of an intrusion event via a text or an email, with messages including a jpeg image of the event. There’s also a PTZ version available with presets, once again with storage and IP66 rating, as well as a heater. I only see an image of this unit but it’s nice looking and has all the same fundamental specifications of the fixed camera.
“One of the things that DRS has done is gotten away from using a sacrificial germanium window, which lowers the cost again,” Robinson tells me. “The windows are more expensive than the lenses and this is another item to add to the total cost of ownership and the initial install cost.
Matt Nolan agrees
“A lot of the competition have sacrificial windows and they also have non-sealed housings so you don’t have the ability to purge them of the air mix and eliminate humidity,” he says. “When the housing heats up and cools down you get a different dew point and this changes the performance characteristics of the camera.
“What this means is that with other manufacturers you actually need an expensive additional housing if you want the camera to work properly in IP66 environments and it might cost 10 times as much to have a nitrogen-filled housing fabricated for a one-off application.”
Something this latest version of the WatchMaster IP has is a lap control that allows the set up of automatic contrast control.
“What you see with all thermal cameras is that in a constant scene, the image washes out a bit,” says Robinson. “With WatchMaster Elite, when a car or a person appears, the camera adjusts the contrast of the entire screen a bit like WDR on a CCTV camera giving much clearer images.”
We have a look at the WatchMaster IP product using DRS software that links us directly to the camera. The images are contrasty in the monochrome settings we look at. There’s no ID possible here but you can see people, vehicles, details quite clearly. It’s obvious where the buildings are, the windows, doors, shrubs.
You have to come to thermal cameras with a different mindset. These cameras are perfect for fundamental detection of intrusion – if you need to know there’s someone there, then thermal cannot be beaten, day, night, rain and shine. The image is actually better at night, according to the boys. And it has more heat contrast at dawn and dusk.
We look at the images. While depth of field is great – the scene is maybe 35m wide and 70m deep – there’s also a pretty good sense of depth of field. What I mean by this is that the sense of distance perspective is good. All thermal cameras tend to have a 2-dimensional quality about them on-screen, especially when the scenes are devoid of mid-field detail. The WatchMaster does a good job of displaying depth perspective in the scenes we view.
Watching the traffic in the carpark you get a strong sense of the value of thermal imaging in perimeter applications and in support of manned sites where security teams respond to confirmed detection. And, as ever when viewing thermal camera scenes, I can never help lateral-thinking myself into a monitoring station control room.
In these applications thermal cameras could give operators vital confirmation of intrusion allowing immediate police response instead of the strange, even dangerous situation which sees keyholders acting as mutual first responders to unconfirmed alarm events in commercial premises.
Features of the WatchMaster IP Elite include:
* Multiple input power options (24VAC,12VDC,POE)
* ONVIF compliant for integration ease
* Range – 370m for people, 1000m for vehicles
* Resolution 320 x 240 pixels (higher resolution available)
* Spectral response from 8-14um
* Minimum sensitivity down to 50 milliKelvin
* Frame rate up to 30fps
* 2GB onboard storage.
* Basic on board analytics – VMD and ROI
* IP66 rated housing with sunshield
* PTZ Version Watchmaster IP Ultra currently available
* 640 x 480 version available in April with 5 different FOV lenses.