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Heat imaging technology a critical tool in Boston manhunt

April 20, 2013|By Monte Morin
  • An infrared device detects bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hiding in a covered boat in Watertown, Mass.
An infrared device detects bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hiding in… (Massachusetts State Police…)

Talk about heat from law enforcement.

As thousands of police officers closed in on Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Friday evening, airborne authorities relied on thermal imaging technology to confirm the fugitive's position in a stored sailboat.

“We have what’s called a FLIR — a forward-looking infrared device — on that helicopter. It picked up the heat signature of the individual," said Col. Timothy Alben of the Massachusetts State Police. 

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Bloodied from an earlier gun battle with police, Tsarnaev, 19, had crawled into a plastic-covered boat that was stored in the backyard of a Watertown, Mass., home. After the homeowner tipped off police, the helicopter was called in to assist.

"There was movement from that point on," Alben said. "The helicopter was able to direct the tactical teams over to that area."

Heat-sensing technology is a common feature in many military vehicles as it strips away the cloak of darkness, or the cover of fog and smoke. It has also been used by authorities to detect the warmth of lamps used in indoor marijuana farms.

The colors and images that we see during the day are the result of light energy bouncing off the surface of objects and entering our eyes. Infrared heat imaging cameras, however, are blind to such light. Instead, they train their gaze on the infrared energy that warm objects emit. 

Visible light and infrared energy are both forms of electromagnetic radiation, as are radio waves, X-rays and microwaves. However, only a narrow band of this spectrum is visible to the human eye. The wavelength of infrared light is too long to be detected by the eye, but it can be picked up by special sensors that convert that information into visible screen images.

It was those images authorities used to confirm their man was lying beneath a plastic tarp, inside the boat.


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