FLIR Systems Inc., the maker of night-vision gear for law enforcement and commercial clients, got the type of publicity money can’t buy when its thermal-energy camera aided authorities in capturing the Boston Marathon bombing suspect.
The Star Safire HD system was mounted to a Massachusetts State Police helicopter and confirmed that a person later identified as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was alive and hiding under a boat tarp outside a suburban Watertown home before he was taken into custody last week, Kevin Tucker, vice president and general manager of FLIR’s surveillance group, said in a telephone interview yesterday. The system has a thermal sensor, a television camera and a laser range finder that determines distances to target scenes.
“We had the state police helicopter that could tell us when there was movement in the boat by the heat sensor, so we could tell he was alive and moving,” Watertown, Massachusetts, Police Chief Edward Deveau said in a CNN interview on April 20. A negotiation team was brought in, eventually resulting in Tsarnaev’s capture the previous day.
Tsarnaev, 19, was charged by the U.S. yesterday with using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction in the two blasts that killed three people and injured more than 170 near the race’s finish line on April 15. Pictures broadcast on TV and printed in newspapers over the weekend showed an X-rayed image of Watertown resident David Henneberry’s boat and Tsarnaev huddled within it prior to the arrest.
Henneberry first noticed the tarp on his boat was torn after Governor Deval Patrick lifted some restrictions on movement and travel and he stepped outside to get fresh air. After walking to the boat and seeing blood, he called police at 6:42 p.m.
Tsarnaev remains at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston recovering from injuries sustained in an almost 24-hour manhunt that shut down Boston and surrounding cities. His 26-year-old brother Tamerlan was killed during an earlier confrontation with police on April 19.
FLIR, based in Wilsonville, Oregon, also has an office outside of Boston, with about 400 employees, Tucker said. The firm was founded in 1978 and originally provided infrared-imaging systems that were installed on vehicles for use in conducting energy audits. Its present technology permits users to see objects through darkness, dust, smoke or fog. Ground-based security for commercial clients, in addition to law-enforcement agencies, employ FLIR’s technology.
The Star Safire HD system can cost about $500,000 yet varies with different configurations, and is used by the U.S. Army as well as federal, state and local law enforcement, said Tucker. The thermal imaging camera, which recognizes the differences in surface energy among objects and represents them in shades of gray, can’t see through roofs, walls or fiberglass, Tucker said. It works in daytime and nighttime, and high temperatures or rain can change its effectiveness.
“This has definitely made people take a look at what is it that we do,” Tucker said. “I used to live in New England, and the Boston Marathon is one of biggest events all year. For us to be able to play a small part was a real honor.”
E-mails asking the Massachusetts State Police about the FLIR technology weren’t returned.
Under some conditions, thermal imaging can’t distinguish between humans and other animals. It generally doesn’t work when the ambient temperature is higher than about 96 degrees Fahrenheit (36 Celsius) outdoors or inside a building or vehicle, according to two sources familiar with the technology who asked not to be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly. Metallic space blankets, thick underbrush and glass reflections can foil it, as can well-insulated or underground spaces, the people said.
In the fourth quarter, FLIR won a $17 million contract to outfit an aircraft for the Afghan Air Force, as well as a $12 million contract to support the Brazil police force’s security measures for the World Cup and Olympic Games, William Sundermeier, president of FLIR’s government-systems unit, said during a Feb. 7 conference call.
FLIR’s profit increased 1.5 percent in the fourth quarter from a year earlier as the firm’s bookings and backlog of orders increased. Its revenue fell 4.6 percent to $386.4 million, with more than half from international clients. FLIR’s shares rose 1.7 percent in the past 12 months, compared with a 13 percent increase in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index. FLIR gained 1.8 percent yesterday to close at $23.96 in New York.