A former soldier has applied his army training to help the environment and diagnose medical issues in animals. Alfred’s Keri Jones visited Anthony Walker of Thermosurvey at Shaftesbury’s Wincombe Business Park to see how drones aid his diagnosis.
Anthony Walker is a thermographer. His working day is spent looking at images created using a thermal camera. “You will have seen how police go around using thermal cameras to catch perpetrators. That’s the sort of thing that I do, but I look at buildings, estates, horses and even cows. I am trying to find out different heat levels,” said Anthony.
Anthony uses a ‘serious piece of kit’ and he mastered it in the military, whilst serving in the Queen’s Royal Lancers. Scanning for body heat helped him to identify hidden snipers and could have meant the difference between life and death in combat. “Using thermal imaging to kill people at 2,000 metres is not a transferable skill. It’s a little bit antisocial, so I thought I’d do it for environmental reasons,” said Anthony.
Joking aside, he still uses his skill to potentially protect lives. For example, thermal imaging can reveal factory equipment that is operating at a perilously high temperature. “I can look at plant and machinery electrics because anything that runs hot can be dangerous and can cause fires,” he explained.
Homeowners have traditionally had to wait until snow falls and settles to gauge the effectiveness of their roof insulation, comparing whether their dusting of powder has melted before their neighbours. Anthony’s equipment can pinpoint heat loss hot spots across an entire property, at any time of the year. “I look at the outside of the building,” he said. “If I can see heat loss coming out, I can help you increase your insulation.”
It’s a bit more complicated than pointing a camera. “There’s a bit of training and some software that I use to make sure that I can analyse it to a far greater detail.” When Anthony reviews his thermal images, generally, colours associated with warmth represent heat loss. “The hotter temperatures will be the brighter and lighter colours and the colder temperatures the other way around. We can split it into the colours we want to have,” he said.
That’s a simplified explanation and Anthony has supplemented his military training with evenings and weekend of private study to better understand the interpretation of thermal images. “I’m a very boring person. I did a Masters in damp and moisture using thermal imaging in old houses,” he laughed. It’s a useful qualification, although unlikely to melt the ice at a dinner party.
If Anthony was to assume that red on a thermal image represented heat, that reading wouldn’t tell the entire story. “There’s a colour picture of the house of a chief executive of a well-known energy company. One of my competitors took it, and it looked like a firework going off, with lots of reds and yellows. It appeared that the guy couldn’t give a stuff about energy but if you look carefully, you can see the lamppost outside was also red. It was a cold day and concrete doesn’t heat up, so they changed the span,” said Anthony, who explained that his rivals had altered the thermal imaging spectrum for the stunt. “Everything was on fire. You have to be careful,” he warned.
One of the tools Alexander uses is a drone. It’s helpful in assessing heat loss from estates or from solar panel farms. It’s not one of those cheap gadgets you buy for £100 on the net that makes a high-pitched whining noise like a mosquito. It’s professional equipment and Alex has accreditation for its operation.
“First of all, if you are going to have anybody flying for you and money transfers hands, you have to have a CAA qualified person. We can only go to 400ft and commercial aircraft will generally be down to 500 feet. We are only allowed to fly one kilometre away from line of sight. It’s quite restrictive. And we need to be 30m from anybody or any structure that is not under our control when we take off. It’s like a little bubble that you fly around,” said Anthony.
There are also restrictions governing use near airports, which includes Compton Abbas airfield, but Anthony says permissions for use is often given. “As long as you talk to the air traffic control guys and say that you are going to be there, and ask whether you can do it, they are generally happy.”
Understanding what you are doing is important when you are flying around sturdy gear, the size of a small deckchair. “If you take your normal drone and magnify it four or five times, that’s the size of it. You have two batteries. Each is the size of an egg carton. The whole thing will be a couple of kilos. It can stay in the air for half an hour flying time,” said Anthony.
As you might expect, Anthony’s professional drone kit isn’t cheap. “I get very sweaty armpits when I fly this because it is expensive,” he said. He was busy setting up the drone to give a demonstration by pressing a sturdy, military-looking control touch pad. “It is a specialised tablet and has more buttons than you can shake a stick at. There is equivalent of a couple or three computers inside it,” he said.
First, he had to calibrate the compass positions, so he picked up this cumbersome kit and waved it round like a majorette twirling a baton, in a figure-of-eight motion. “We are waiting for the lights on the drone to go green,” he told me. “Data has been updated’, said a female American robot voice emanating from the drone. We got the green light and, with a deeper, more resonate purring sound than I had expected, the drone was hovering above our heads.
Back at his base in the Wincombe Centre, I asked Anthony how the different construction materials used for homes around Shaftesbury vary in terms of heat insulation and damp prevention. The traditional greensand stone cottages fair reasonably well with damp. “They are not too bad, but not the best,” he said. “Once brick or stone is warm, it stays warm. If you warm a stone on the fire, it will stay hot for a long time. Too much insulation might stay cold in summer,” he added.
Construction standards are improving, and Anthony notices a difference in public building erected just a few decades apart. “You can see that with the classrooms from the 1980s compared to the 2000s. You can see quite quickly the quality of some of the housing companies. A lot of the tenants or owners will complain they have a cold house. Housing associations or builders ask me as an independent to make sure that their standards are high enough. I’ve caught a lot of dodgy builders out,” he smiled.
Anthony has been employed within our area, although he won’t reveal which companies have hired him or where he has been asked to investigate the heat loss levels of relatively new properties. “I was looking at all housing across the area for one of my clients, a public body, and you could really see the bad insulation on some of these houses. If the damp comes in, it makes insulation really bad and people get cold. If you start getting damp housing and cold housing people get ill. I’m trying stop that,” Anthony said.
Some of the methods people use to address damp in cold homes can magnify the problem. “If you have a modern house and you put in rock wool, the wall insulation, it gets damp really quickly. If you have holes in the external cladding, like pointing issues, it will stay damp for years. And even if you have a warm house it will feel really damp. I found that with a lot of housing association properties. On wet days, you’ll see problems developing.”
There’s one aspect of Anthony work which intrigued me. His claim that he can help assess problems with animals. “Horses, cows and human beings will have inflammations, infections and different diseases. Thermal imaging cameras can pick up all of that. On the equine side I can find infections in the foot, I can find kissing spine (a condition in horses) and problems in the muscles. I find a lot of information about the horse. I can work with physiotherapists and I’ve had a number of horse-owning clients around here,” said Anthony.
Anthony took me to his office. I remarked on the colourful picture on his wall. I wondered whether it was the ‘fireworks’ like image of that energy-company executive’s home he spoke of. Then I realised that the rainbow coloured image was of a dog. Anthony had used his equipment to take a picture of a pet. Perhaps thermal images of our furry friends could be the new craze this Christmas? Providing that present would surely be as satisfying as sorting someone’s damp.
If you need help assessing damp, need inspection by a drone or even want a unique portrait of your dog, thermographer Anthony could be your man. He is at Unit 18 Wincombe Centre and you can find out more at ThermoSurvey.co.uk.