The Woodward News

June 16, 2013

Infrared camera can help with safety

Rachael Van Horn
Woodward News

Woodward, Okla. — Ever since Spencer Albracht can remember, he has been taking things apart, curious about just what made them work.

"Back then, when I was a kid, I mostly couldn’t get them put back together,” Albracht joked.

Ultimately though, where all that curiosity led Albracht is no joke.

The 22-year-old full time utilities locator from Shattuck is working with a heavyweight government contractor discovering new uses for a specialized thermal infrared camera.

The company asked not to be identified yet.

“It started more than two years ago when I got to thinking about what the temperatures inside of a tornado were like and how they affected it and whether you could use infrared technology to see them,” Albracht said.

Already an avid storm chaser, Albracht was not afraid to go out and take pictures of a tornado no matter how close he had to get to it. The problem was Albracht didn’t have any infrared camera with which to test his theory and so he had to find someone willing to donate or lend him the technology with which to experiment, he said.

However, since his premise was not terribly sexy, ground breaking or even new, he didn’t get much initial interest from anyone with the equipment who was willing to help, he said.

Finally after calling and getting told “no” hundreds of times, Albracht said, one of his calls paid off.

“I called a guy in California and he gave me this number of a guy in Dallas and said ‘Call this guy and I will tell him you are calling,’,” Albracht said. “So I called the guy in Dallas and he said ‘haven’t I talked to you before?’”

After joking with the fellow that he probably had heard from Albracht before since he had called hundreds of people, the contact in Dallas, impressed by Albracht’s tenacity, agreed to work with him by sending him one of their infrared cameras on which to try out his theory.

The company produces and sells infrared technology to the military and happened to have an idle demonstration unit.

That was July last year. Now, Albracht has another camera that he has worked with during this year's storm season but he would not have gotten one this year if last year, he hadn't proven himself.

“That camera they gave me last year was like the one I have now,” he said. “But people have to understand, this camera costs more than $140,000 so it was no small thing for them to let me do this.”

Albracht said, despite many tries last year, filming and taking photos of tornadoes, the sunlight disrupted the heat impression and left him feeling like he was not getting a true reading and only because of the sunshine.

Then, he was made aware of a storm near Pauls Valley.

This was a partially rain wrapped funnel and it was at night and so I wanted to see what this camera could do at night without the interference of the sun," Albracht said. "I was 12 miles away from the storm and when I focused on it, there it was. I could see all the vortices, it got a clear picture of that funnel and it was at night."

Since then, Albracht said he has been using the new camera to see “everything I can see with it” and is currently in negotiations with the company at present regarding his discovery of the camera’s ability to see a tornado so clearly at night.

But storm chasing is not the only thing Albracht, who is also partnering with a weather analyst from Norman is doing. In an effort to use the camera to discover "that one aspect of temperature" in a funnel that has not been discovered, he is shopping around for underwriters to partner with him financially to bring the technology here permanently," Albracht said.

At the center of Albracht's cause is community safety.

"What I want is to get sponsorships to allow me to either lease this camera or buy the camera so that we can use it here in our community," Albracht said. "And not just for storm chasing, but for everything from industrial to medical reasons. I can go from storm chasing to searching for lost people or people buried from a storm with this technology because it can see them through things."

Add to that, Albracht demonstrated how the camera, when pointed at the human, can detect clearly the vascular as well as skeletal structure.

Indeed, the technology is being used already medically, according to well published data on medical websites.

However, Albracht said it can also be used by industry such as the oil industry in the event of a spill and even the air conditioning and heating industry to spot quickly units that are not working and just exactly which coil is not functioning.

At present, Albracht still has the borrowed camera but just for a few more days before he has to return it to the company.

His goal is to begin to interest the community in supporting the purchase of such a camera so that it can service the community when it is needed.

Patrick Godfrey is the Shattuck Emergency Management  DIrector.

"His camera would be so beneficial here for storm stopping at night," Godfrey said. "It is extremely good at night. It made that storm appear as if you were looking at it in the day time."

Godfrey said while there is indeed, some infrared technology available at most fire departments, it is not nearly as sensitive or as able to work long-range as the technology Albracht is using.

"We have infrared cameras on the fire trucks and they are small hand held cameras that we use to detect in there is a fire in a wall of a house or even if someone has been ejected from a car accident, we can use it to search for them around the vehicle if we can't find them."

But Godfrey said the ability for Albracht's camera to see for miles is unique and would be helpful in many emergencies.