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Thread: Thermal Foxing The First Stages

  1. #1

    Thermal Foxing The First Stages

    Some of you may know that I recently bought an enormous ex-military thermal imaging system from an MOD disposal auction via a surplus dealer. When it finally arrived, I checked it over somewhat excitedly. The labels told me that it's a 'Pilkington Optronics Imager Thermal Lite', although whoever tried to associate the term ‘light’ with something that weighs 6.5kg obviously never had to carry it very far… I was blown away by the size of the objective lens – it measured five and half inches across. Bearing in mind just how expensive germanium lenses are, this was clearly a very serious piece of kit…

    Here are some photos - yes, those really are pound coins!

    Left side:

    Right side:

    From the rear:

    Top side:


    On the back there was a ‘viewing module’ composed of a small eyepiece that looked into a box with an internal screen. The lead that connected it to the main body of the rig was very badly beaten-up, and clearly in need of close attention. I examined the controls to see if I could work out what they were – some had icons next to them, the others didn’t. The optics had what looked like focus-in and focus-out buttons, and next to them was a third, which I assumed was some kind of zoom control. There were also ‘brightness-up’ and ‘brightness-down’ as well as ‘contrast-up’ and ‘contrast-down’ controls. I assumed the other two were power-on and black-hot/white-hot buttons.

    As the rig came without any kind of operating instructions or connection leads whatsoever, I had to ponder out what to power it up with, and how. After some further examination and partial dismantling, I discovered that there was a label on the back of the power module – this gave me the pin-outs and acceptable voltage ranges. The power input socket had a long part number written on it, so I was hopeful that I could trace the correct plug for it at some stage. In the meantime, however, I was far too impatient to get it going – and if it didn’t work, there’d be little point in paying good money for parts that would never get used. I therefore checked through my sheds and found some mil-spec pins of the right size. Who said hoarding was a bad thing? A couple of minutes with the soldering iron and some gash cable saw me rig up a temporary power lead.

    A quick rootle around saw me locate the spare fuel pump battery for my hillclimb racer. This was just the right size and capacity, so on the charger it went. While that was happening, I stripped the Lemo connector on the monitor lead to get at the dodgy-looking cable – sure enough, the insulation had come away on several of the wires, and they all looked to be twisted together and as a result, almost certainly completely shorted out. I therefore cut the sleeving away and temporarily bodged them back together with insulation tape. My thinking here was that if I could get the imager going, I’d throw the horrible monitor away and fit a small video screen in its place.

    An hour or so later, and I tried to start the imager for the first time. I pressed what I was hoping was the ‘on’ button, and was delighted to hear it start whirring. But that was all it did. There was no image through the viewer, and that was it. I tried all the other buttons, but apart from a loud ‘clonk’ when I pressed what I presumed was the zoom button, nothing. After a few minutes I turned it off and walked away scratching my head. Every time I walked anywhere near it I tried again, with the same result – it would start, but do nothing more. As there were no other controls, I couldn’t think what more I could do. One evening, however, it occurred to me that I hadn’t tried holding the power button on for a few seconds. I did this, and all of a sudden, the rig started sounding like a model helicopter taking off! A quick look through the eyepiece showed me a blurred thermal view of the end of my office. Result!

    Some frantic fiddling saw the focus buttons in action, and everything got a bit clearer. The image was nothing special though, which was not at all surprising, as the unit was clearly built for long-range area observation rather than just looking down the length of a room. I was delighted though – now I had to get it set up on some kind of mount so that I could use it properly. Back to the hoarding – I’m a keen attendee of car boot sales, and over the years I’ve amassed a nice collection of quality photographic tripods. Every time I saw one a at a silly price, I bought it and stashed it away. A quick trip to the relevant cupboard showed that in amongst them all was a large video tripod which would be more than up to the job of handling such a heavy device.

    Unfortunately, I discovered that this monster tripod didn’t have a quick-release mount, something that I knew would be vital if I was going to be handling such a big piece of equipment both in the dark and on my own. A bit more delving around saw me uncover a broken pan-tilt head with a bolt-on QD mount. It looked as though I could rob the relevant parts and modify them to go on the tripod, so I was one step closer. The next problem was that the plate that goes in it to mount the camera was missing. A further issue was that the pan-tilt head had no markings other than the maker’s name, and so began a couple of hours of Google images detective work. In the end, I was able to get a positive ID, and a spare plate was duly ordered.

    While I was waiting for that to arrive, I began the search for more information. I had no idea whatsoever what kind of video signal it would be producing – once again, I went to Google, and after much searching found that it would most probably be what is known as RS170 – in essence, a monochrome NTSC signal. Now I had something to go on. The next day I spotted a brand-new in-car DVD player at a local boot sale. The vendor was anxious to sell it to me, but to our collective disappointment on reading the instruction booklet, I discovered that it didn’t appear to accept an NTSC input. Time for a rethink…

    Pondering the matter as I drove home, it occurred to me that the Maplins store in Exeter would be open on a Sunday, so I diverted there for a quick look-round. I parked up without any troubles and managed to make my way across the busy road without getting run over. My good fortune held as I was lucky enough to find a store assistant who had half an idea of what I was talking about. He kindly helped me go through the large range of entertainment products until we found a two-screen in-car DVD system which would accept NTSC signals. At 120, it wasn’t a cheap option, but as it had two screens, I was hopeful that I could use the spare one on my mini-thermal. While I was there I also bought a small USB adapter – this is capable of taking all manner of video signals and feeding them into a computer. Feeling hopeful that I’d made good headway, I set off home with my new toys.

    A few hours later I set to again. The screen took a bit of sorting out as there were so many different leads to choose from, and there was no telling which of the three plugs on the signal cable would be the right one. Still – nothing ventured, nothing gained, and I duly fired the thermal imager up. Once it’d gone through its two or three minute warm-up cycle, the helicopter sound began and I started experimenting with the different connectors. Almost straight away, I had a result – the image was now clearly displayed on the screen. I was ecstatic – for I knew that from there on in, I’d be able to get the signal into a computer and record it. A few minutes later I dug the laptop out and tried the new USB input device – after a bit of fiddling around, I got that working too. The next day the plate for the tripod mount arrived – and to my great relief, it fitted perfectly.

    A couple of trips out to test the system in anger showed me that the imager was an incredibly good tool, and well worth persevering with. I was particularly blown away by the quality of the optics. A white shape running across a field some four or five hundred yards away soon resolved itself into a clear image of a fox with a few deft pushes of the focus and zoom buttons. A set of farm buildings that must have been at least a mile away were crystal clear.

    The only downsides were a) the system was quite noisy, and b) the image was marred by strong horizontal lines. I could see straight away that these would need attending to if I was going to do any successful recording. I later had a discussion with a good mate – who happens to be an optics expert, and he suggested that the lines may be caused by internal vibration. I’ve not had a chance to deal with this yet – I’m somewhat concerned by several labels starkly warning of the presence of toxic gallium arsenide and selenium arsenide particulates, so until I’ve spoken to the manufacturers, I won’t be pulling the case apart…

    I also found that getting everything connected up at night was not easy – especially at this time of year when the world appears to be primarily composed of deep mud. I therefore spent a few days improving the set-up. This included shortening the leads, taping over any unnecessary sockets (to minimise confusion in the dark), making a proper bracket for the screen, and mounting the battery so that it didn’t fall off every time I moved the rig.

    While all this was going on, I was still working out how to record the image. Having had some dreadful experiences with small DVRs, I wasn’t at all hopeful that I’d find what I was after, but I persisted with my research. In the end, I spoke to the owner of Dog Cam Sport, hidden away down in Bodmin, Cornwall. He was most helpful, and after explaining what I was after, he suggested that I try one of his Mini-DVR systems. This not appeared to provide all the basics I needed, but it also came with a remote control that had two large buttons – power on/off, and record on/off. Superb – that would mean that I wouldn’t have to go faffing about with untold layers of menus just to get the thing going. He also offered me a 28 day money-back guarantee if it didn’t live up to his claims. At 120 delivered, it sounded just the ticket, so I made a card payment and sat back to await its arrival. The very next morning my favourite postie rang the doorbell and handed over a small parcel – ooh, pressie time!

    To cut a long story short, it worked first time – always a good sign. I’d already bought a couple of micro-SD cards the last time I tried to get a mini-DVR going, but the question was, where the hell had I put them? There followed a couple of frantic hours as I looked in all the obvious places. In the end, I checked the most sensible place, and there they were… A quick session with a couple of cans of Plastikote aerosol brown and green paint ensured that the previously bright silver tripod wasn’t going to stand out like a sore thumb. That meant that I now had everything I needed to do the job properly. Time for action – but that, as they say, is another story!

    For those who'd like to see a clip of the thermal in action, please go here: Thermal Fox
    Last edited by Paddy_SP; 14-01-2012 at 14:20.

  2. #2
    Sounds as if youve had a hell of a time trying to get this altogether mate but judging by the video its bee worth it. What did you use when actually taking the shot Nv?

  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by hw100sniper View Post
    Sounds as if youve had a hell of a time trying to get this altogether mate but judging by the video its bee worth it. What did you use when actually taking the shot Nv?
    Thanks - I was using my Sauer 202 in .22-250 with Sierra Blitzking ammo and a D480 dedicated NV riflescope.

  4. #4
    This may be of interest to you, it would appear they bought Pilkington Optronics, perhaps they would have a manual for your device?

    • Pilkington Optronics becomes part of the Thomson-CSF Optronics Business Group.

    • Thomson-CSF OPTROSYS formed.

    Last edited by Morgy; 14-01-2012 at 18:40.

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by Morgy View Post
    This may be of interest to you, it would appear they bought Pilkington Optronics, perhaps they would have a manual for your device?

    • Pilkington Optronics becomes part of the Thomson-CSF Optronics Business Group.

    • Thomson-CSF OPTROSYS formed.

    Many thanks - I have tried to talk to Thales, but haven't found the right person yet...

  6. #6
    Lots went straight over my head, but an absolutely rivetting read, when will you be purchasing the FOX scout car!
    (The Unspeakable In Pursuit Of The Uneatable.) " If I can help, I will help!." Former S.A.C.S. member!

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by finnbear270 View Post
    Lots went straight over my head, but an absolutely rivetting read, when will you be purchasing the FOX scout car!
    I've been building a Defender project vehicle for some time now - or, to be more accurate, I was building it. For various reasons, it got put on hold. Hopefully, I'll get back on it again soon - the idea is to have the thermal imager on a large pan/tilt remote-control mount on the roof, and the screen for it on the dash. I also intend to fit some kind of turret-lid so that I can stand up and take a shot without having to leave the vehicle. There's no hurry though - around here I'd be better off with a boat right now...

  8. #8
    Must come and have a look at that Paddy. Excellent video by the way.
    All the best Tom

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by devonoak View Post
    Must come and have a look at that Paddy. Excellent video by the way.
    All the best Tom
    Thanks mate - any time!

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