RED DEER, Alta. – New technology has a mystical way of turning a grown man into a wide-eyed child at Christmas, even when the new toy is used for work.
Rob Sapinsky had a full-toothed grin as we walked towards the latest technology and newest toy being utilized by Alberta’s Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Branch.
Sapinsky is a Transport Officer II with the government branch and is also the coordinator for the new Thermal Eye Unit.
The province recently purchased the Thermal Imaging Unit for about $400,000 and Alberta is the first province in Canada to utilize the technology.
The 2007 Ford Van is equipped with both colour and thermal cameras, with three mounting options. Officers inside the van use the thermal imaging system and software to conduct mechanical inspections on commercial vehicles while they are still in motion.
“What we’re looking at is mechanical components. Overheated parts – brakes and bearings – exhaust leaks, low or flat tires, liquid dangerous goods leaks,” noted Sapinsky. “It’s allowing us to pre-screen commercial vehicles and focus on vehicles that have identified mechanical details. We can see things an officer might not see as a vehicle passes through an inspection site.”
The thermal camera allows officers inside the van to see or measure the thermal energy emitted from an object. Thermal, or infrared, energy is light not visible to the human eye because its wavelength is too long to be detected.
The infrared thermography cameras produce images of invisible infrared and provide precise non-contact temperature measurement capabilities. Nearly everything gets hot before it fails, making infrared cameras a cost-effective diagnostic tool in commercial vehicle enforcement, noted Sapinsky. And despite its reliance on temperature, the Thermal Imaging Unit is operational in all climate conditions.
“It allows us to take unsafe vehicles off the road. They’re strictly mechanical defects, which can become serious safety issues,” he added. “We can also do tank fluid profiling and see the levels inside the tank.”
Sapinsky explained that brakes are the most common concern, but the Thermal Imaging Unit can be utilized to inspect a wide variety of issues which may be cause for concern on a commercial vehicle, including: overloaded units; false compartment identification; emergency response; spill zone detection; fire source detection; cargo profiling; and human and drug detection.
The Thermal Imaging Unit is now a few years in the making, as the province’s CVEB undertook a pilot project in 2004, conducting thermal imaging observations on commercial vehicles at various locations throughout Alberta.
The pilot project was initiated following the McDermid Report in 2004, which took a look at road safety in Alberta and outlined strategies and goals to improve safety conditions.
Specifically the report recommended taking advantage of advances in technology provided the objectives are directly related to improving road safety. As Sapinsky pointed out, the safety of the trucks and their operators is the main purpose of the Thermal Imaging Unit, not to write more tickets.
“We’re not out here to get them off the road, but to correct mechanical issues – such as brakes – before they become a dangerous problem,” he said.
In April, four officers underwent a full-week training course on how to operate the thermal camera and its accompanying software.
Then on May 15 the mobile unit made its first appearance on Alberta’s highway and has been making a tour around the province ever since.
“It has been utilized as much as possible. Some weeks we’ve been out for seven days and some just five days,” said Sapinsky. “It’s on the road more than it’s parked.”
With the mobile unit, the officers have the luxury of setting up wherever they deem necessary.
“We can set up on the side of the road, or at static pads – which are weigh stations with no building – rest areas; pretty much anywhere we have room to deal with commercial vehicles,” explained Sapinsky.
If an officer inside the imaging van identifies a vehicle which needs to be inspected, the officer radios down the road where another inspector will direct the truck off the road and perform a proper inspection.
So far, the officers have been pretty accurate in assessing vehicles.
“Our accuracy rate is in the higher 90%s,” said Sapinsky. “In May, we screened 2,500 vehicles and identified approximately 150 with mechanical problems; and 87% of those vehicles were taken off the road.”
The Thermal Imaging Unit is a first in Canada, but if all goes well it will not be the last in Alberta. And the new technology is already getting rave reviews from its coordinator.
“It’s awesome,” Sapinsky said with another grin. “It’s a very valuable tool. There is a business plan in place for more.”