The Goleta branch of FLIR Systems, a thermal imaging company, helped manufacture an infrared-sensing chip that recently assisted Boston police in seeking out suspected Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
The chip acts as an integral component of the Star SAFIRE — a thermal imaging camera used by security personnel all over the world, including the Massachusetts State Police Department. The camera, which analyzes thermal wavelengths for a variety of applications, was used by Boston authorities to find and eventually arrest Tsarnaev.
On April 15, two bombs were detonated during the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring over 280 attendees, sparking an immediate investigation into the perpetrators’ identity. By April 19, the manhunt had transformed into a rigorous search of the Watertown and greater Boston area for Tsarnaev, whose brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, also suspected, had already received fatal wounds while exchanging gunfire with Massachusetts Police.
At around 7 p.m., a Watertown resident reported finding a blood-covered man hiding in a boat the resident kept in his backyard, at which point police used the Star SAFIRE camera to locate Tsarnaev’s heat signature. By using the FLIR technology, police were able to observe Tsarnaev’s movements and gain insight into the suspect’s physical condition, after throwing concussion grenades at the boat.
According to Bill Terre, vice president and general manager of FLIR Commercial Vision Systems, heat releases a great deal of energy through infrared wavelengths, so a device that tracks these wavelengths like the Star SAFIRE can “see through” some visually impermeable surfaces. Furthermore, the tarp Tsarnaev took refuge under is permeable to infrared radiation, so police could clearly observe the suspect’s form and movement.
The camera was comprised of parts from both the FLIR headquarters in Oregon as well as the Goleta branch, Terre said.
“The corporate headquarters is in fact in Oregon, but we have major operations here in Goleta as well as Boston, Sweden and smaller operations around the world,” Terre said. “The piece of hardware that was used in the helicopter in Boston that was flown by the Massachusetts State Police — that system was built in Portland. But the critical piece of technology, the chip — this is the infrared energy — was in fact built here in Goleta.”
According to Terre, FLIR Systems is a global company of about 3,000 employees, taking in about 1.4 billion dollars a year in revenue. The Oregon headquarters focuses on military and defense technology, while the Goleta branch primarily deals with commercial and local security systems.
The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department frequently uses FLIR’s infrared systems on cases involving detonated devices, lost hikers, missing persons and marijuana-growing facilities. FLIR currently occupies four different sites in Goleta, and the company has recently purchased two additional buildings to consolidate the company’s site from four discrete locations into one larger campus.
Jeff Frank, director of business development for the Indigo Products Group of FLIR Systems, is also vice president of innovation at the UCSB Engineering Industry Center Board, and said FLIR has already made significant improvements to the model used to observe Tsarnaev. According to Frank, the general system also now includes better stabilization, tighter integration with GPS, inertial systems and mapping, as well as multi-sensor and multi-spectral capabilities, providing much higher end-user performance and capability.
“This [the system used in Boston] is an older system,” Frank said. “Besides general systematic improvements we’ve made to our sensors and our readouts over time, the two key attributes — pixel and array size — are what differentiates this older sensor from what we do today. Today our state of the art technology is a 1280×760 device with 14um pixels.”
According to Frank, FLIR and similar companies hope to make advances in the efficiency and durability of this type of infrared detector, aiming to eventually create a more cost-effective and practical product.
FLIR in Goleta plans to create systems that allow infrared detection systems to be less costly and, therefore, more accessible to the public for a wider variety of everyday uses, Terre said.
“The systems that were used last week are very high performance, and they are also very expensive. Not everyone can really afford to have that technology, governments and military can afford that kind of system,” Terre said. “What we’re really focused on here in the Goleta area, is trying to make a technology much, much more affordable — to try to make things as inexpensively as possible so that you and me can have a little thermal imager with us at all times. So we can look for lost children or find our way in the dark … there are a number of really important uses with this technology.”
A version of this article appeared on page 1 of April 29th, 2013′s print edition of the Daily Nexus.