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Infrared cameras head towards the consumer

12 Jan 2004

As their popularity grows, infrared cameras are tackling more applications than ever before. Jacqueline Hewett spoke to Earl Lewis, president of US infrared imaging specialist FLIR Systems, about future markets.

From Opto & Laser Europe January 2004

Infrared technology has rapidly risen to fame in recent years. Originally made for military applications, infrared cameras could soon be finding their way into the hands of firefighters, policemen and electricians. In fact, as the cost of infrared technology continues to fall, it may not be much longer before it becomes available to everyone.

One company that is reaping the rewards of this boom is US-based FLIR Systems, the self-professed global leader in infrared camera technology. Earl Lewis, FLIR's president and chief executive officer, is confident that the technology is here to stay. "It will become a part of people's lives - a lot more than it is today," he told Opto & Laser Europe. "Eventually this technology will be in people's homes and cars."

FLIR's recent financial results are testament to its success and support Lewis's conviction. For the first nine months of 2003, the firm's revenue increased by 15% to $214.6m (€175.4m), while its earnings from operations rose to $47m - a 35% increase compared with the same period in 2002.

Later this year, FLIR will also start to benefit from its recent acquisition of Indigo Systems, a US maker of infrared detector technology. This has added an important string to FLIR's bow. "We said a year ago that part of our strategy was to acquire a detector manufacturer so that we could better integrate them [detectors] into our systems," said Lewis. "Indigo makes all the detectors that we need. We'll be able to acquire them at lower cost and we believe they will be better than the ones we already have."

Applications galore These days there may be no stopping FLIR, but life at the company has not always been so comfortable. "When I joined the company three years ago, it had a lot of debt problems," said Lewis. "We've eliminated lower-margin products, organized the company into two divisions and brought on some new products. The company had a value of $60-70m and now we have a value of well over $1bn."

FLIR divides its business into two sections: imaging and thermography. The imaging business is concerned with long-range applications, such as search and rescue. Products in this range use detectors that are cooled to cryogenic temperatures to minimize the background thermal noise in the image.

The application and wavelength of the infrared light to be measured dictates the type of detector used in the camera. FLIR uses a range of detectors, including silicon-based devices and the quantum-well infrared photodetectors the firm produces at its facility in Sweden. According to Lewis, state-of-the-art products can "see" a person 3-5km away.

The thermography side of FLIR's business deals with short-range applications, such as preventative maintenance. All of the company's thermography products are based on microbolometers. These detector arrays are made from materials that have an electrical resistivity that changes with temperature. Microbolometers produce high-resolution images and do not require cryogenic cooling. Lewis says that today's cameras can resolve temperature differences of just 0.01 °C.

Improvements in technology and a wealth of applications have fuelled FLIR's success. The firm now offers an extensive range of devices, from state-of-the-art thermal imaging kit incorporating laser rangefinders to handheld and portable systems weighing less than 1 kg. Although FLIR sells its systems to the military, Lewis says the company leans heavily towards commercial applications.

The company's cameras are found in applications used for law enforcement, for data gathering on unmanned airborne vehicles, for surveillance (anything from suspect tracking to crowd control) and even for gathering pictures for televised news bulletins. According to Lewis: "The largest application we have is airborne systems that are used for things like search-and-rescue."

Thermal systems are also used by coastguards, as they can detect a person in the water at distances of up to 3000m. Infrared systems can be used to complement the radar systems on fast ferries to provide video imagery of docking areas, navigation buoys and other small craft.

Although airborne systems make up the largest part of FLIR's business, Lewis says that by far the fastest-growing revenue stream is security. "We are starting to see more interest in systems for protecting borders," he said. "Infrared represents a very good way to secure a facility. There are different systems that will tell you there is a threat, but infrared will allow you to see it."

Some of today's commercial applications also see the company going back to its roots. Founded in 1978, FLIR started off by taking infrared cameras to people's houses to measure a building's heat loss. Today, FLIR's cameras are used in power stations, substations and chemical plants to monitor heat.

"In a factory where you use a lot of energy, you can take an infrared camera and go round and look at all the machinery and the heat that it is generating," explained Lewis. "If you do the same thing week after week, any increase tells you that that piece of equipment is going to fail some time soon, as it's using more energy than it should."

The technology is also beginning to find more unusual applications, such as checking the health of animals. "You can see if a race horse is going to go lame, for example," said Lewis. "There would be a little bit of heat in the joints that wouldn't be there otherwise. Vets actually use this."

Reaching the consumer The increase in infrared applications goes hand-in-hand with ever-improving technology. FLIR is now pioneering a new breed of hand-held, compact, low-cost infrared cameras that it calls the E-series (see box p15). But one crucial question still remains unanswered: Will infrared technology find its way into consumer applications? There is no doubt in Lewis's mind.

"We believe it will," he told Opto & Laser Europe. "We are starting to quote some automotive applications. An infrared camera is now available which, if mounted on the front of the car, allows the driver to see significantly further than with just his headlights."

Another consumer application topping Lewis's list is home inspection - electricians could scan homes with an infrared camera to check for corroded plugs generating heat and requiring replacement. "You could also use this technology to find leaks in roofs, inspect buildings for mould or go back to the original application of FLIR, which was energy-loss [detection]," said Lewis.

The main stumbling block on the road to consumer success is how to increase volume and bring down the price of the systems, which can currently cost anything from $10,000 to $1m. But with FLIR's business firing on all cylinders and new technology filtering down to consumers, Lewis is optimistic about the future.

"Fundamentally, I think infrared cameras are not going to go away for a long, long time," he said. "The number of units produced has to increase significantly. But as more and more automobiles have them, the price will come down. You can make a good argument that when the price does come down, every policeman, fireman and electrician will have one."

FLIR's E2 camera

Resembling a bar-code scanner, the E2 product from FLIR is said to be the smallest and smartest infrared camera ever built. The E2 has an LCD screen that displays real-time images; a red laser pointer to flag up the exact location of the image; the ability to save 50 JPEGs and an RS232 or USB interface to download images. It also comes with an optional 12 V cable to recharge its Li:ion battery in your car. Here's a summary of its technical specifications:

Field of view 25 x 19°

Minimum focus distance 0.3 m

Thermal sensitivity 0.12 °C

Detector type Focal plane array of uncooled microbolometers

Spectral range 7.5-13 µm

Measurement temperature range between -20 and 250°C

Weight 0.7 kg (including battery)

Size (L x W x H) 265 x 80 x 105 mm

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