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Heat Seeker

BALZAC, Alta. - Alberta's Inspection Services department is experimenting with thermal imaging technology that could reduce the need for random inspections while singling out vehicles that require attention.

BALZAC, Alta. – Alberta’s Inspection Services department is experimenting with thermal imaging technology that could reduce the need for random inspections while singling out vehicles that require attention.

The province is halfway through a six-month pilot project involving a cargo van outfitted with infrared technology that identifies and displays heat on monitors inside the van. The van has a regular colour camera as well as an infrared camera mounted on its roof and an inspection officer monitors the images from inside the van.

He can control the direction the camera is pointed and zoom in and out with a handheld device, honing in on a truck’s axles as it pulls into the weigh scale.

The officer can then tell from the heat generated by the wheels whether or not there are any obvious defects requiring attention.

“When they work, brakes on trucks generate heat,” explained Ken Pollard, transport officer with Alberta’s Inspection Services. “What I’m looking for is contrasts in heat.”

If one brake drum appears much hotter than the others, the brake is probably out of adjustment and can be called in for a manual inspection.

“The primary thing we’re looking at is the brake drums,” said Pollard. “We’re looking for brakes that are out of adjustment enough to contrast. If they’ve got a brake that’s not pulling its weight, it will show up as colder than the others.”

But that’s not all the system is capable of identifying.

“I can look for brakes that are out of adjustment, I can look for tires that are different sizes or underinflated, I can look for hot bearings and I can see exhaust and fluid leaks,” Pollard said. Furthermore, it can be a useful tool to identify smugglers as the camera shows the heat generated by fluids. A hidden compartment in the fuel tank for instance, would be easily identifiable.

“The uses for this thing are really endless but our primary use is looking at brakes,” Pollard explained.

Truck West recently sat in on a demonstration with Pollard at the Balzac inspection station on Hwy. 2 north of Calgary. As the trucks rolled along, Pollard was able to interpret the status of their brakes and tires simply by the amount of heat they generated. It didn’t take long before we spotted a tri-axle trailer where the middle tire was glowing much brighter than the others. Even an amateur could clearly spot it, thanks to the infrared camera.

“That centre tire is definitely hotter than the others,” Pollard confirmed. “Now why, I don’t know. It’s definitely showing a lot more heat on that one tire so maybe the tire’s underinflated or it could be any number of reasons and that’s where an inspector would get a look at it. If I pull it in to be checked, our inspector will take a look at it and see possible reasons why that one’s hotter.”

The system does have its limitations, however. If all brakes on a vehicle are out of adjustment by the same amount, the violation may not be identified.

“As long as they’re producing equal heat, you really can’t tell because I’m only seeing heat, not taking measurements,” said Pollard. “But usually there are only going to be one or two out of adjustment and those are the ones that are going to stick out.”

Still, the thermal imaging technology isn’t likely to replace random vehicle inspections altogether. But it could streamline the process for both inspection officers and the industry if it helps identify problem vehicles while reducing the amount of random inspections conducted.

“I’m looking for the obvious problems, I don’t want to hold up the industry anymore than I have to,” insisted Pollard. “It allows us to concentrate our efforts on the units that have obvious problems as opposed to just stopping guys at random.”

That’s the main selling point for the system, according to Fred Ko, vice-president of Thermal Eye Technologies, the Edmonton-based company that developed the technology.

“Hopefully it decreases the number of wasted inspections,” he said. “We’ve built this so it’s not intrusive to the driver so the drivers don’t have to make a deliberate stop on their way into the weigh station – we just scan them as they go past.”

Enforcement agencies in B.C., Ontario and Quebec have expressed interest in the system but Alberta is the only province currently using it. Ko said much of the positive feedback he’s received has come from drivers themselves.

The province will continue using the Thermal Eye van at inspection stations throughout the province before deciding whether or not to implement the system on a permanent basis. For information about Thermal Eye, call (877) 393-3939.

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