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A hot future awaits infrared imaging

17 Jun 2002

Night-vision systems on luxury cars are expected to more than double the value of the worldwide infrared-imaging market over the next four years. Phillip Hill reports.

From Opto & Laser Europe October 2001

Infrared markets have been changing dramatically. Two factors have played a part in this: the resolution of the Cold War, which placed pressure on defence budgets worldwide; and the development of uncooled infrared focal-plane-array technology.

The result has been the emergence of "dual-use" infrared systems, meaning components that can be used in both commercial and military applications. The dual-use market incorporates cooled and uncooled infrared imaging systems; uncooled systems are virtually all dual-use.In 1999, world commercial and dual-use production of infrared-imaging systems had a market value of USD 660 million. By 2005, however, its market value is likely to increase to almost USD 2.6 billion (see graph), according to a new report compiled by US market-research company Maxtech International of Fairfield, Connecticut.

Most of this growth, says Maxtech, will derive from the automotive uncooled night-vision systems that are expected to become available on luxury cars and commercial vehicles within the next five years.

Maxtech executive Gabor Fulop said: "The introduction of a driver's night-vision system in the Cadillac DeVille 2000 model created a level of publicity and exposure that was previously unknown in infrared. Demand has exceeded supply and for the first time in the infrared industry, there is a 'market pull' instead of the usual 'market push' involving a tedious process of educating users about new infrared products." Other applications for uncooled infrared imaging include fire-fighting, predictive maintenance, process control and R&D.

Cooled infrared focal-plane-array (FPA) technologies and systems are also being improved and prices are dropping (albeit at a slower rate than is expected for uncooled FPAs). Cooled FPAs are used in applications that need a higher performance than is provided by uncooled FPAs, or require multispectral operation. "For airborne use, for example, cooled mid-wave infrared devices - usually indium antimonide - have made the most progress in both commercial and dual-use applications," said Fulop.

The rapid changes occurring in infrared markets have brought about commercial consolidation. FLIR Systems of the US has become the leading supplier of camera and system-level products since its acquisitions of Agema Infrared Systems of Sweden in 1997 and Inframetrics of the US in 1999. After a period of poor financial results, the company has recently become re-energized under new management, says Fulop.

Cooled quantum-well infrared photodetectors (QWIPs) have now become available commercially, owing to the recent entry by QWIP Technologies, California, and BAE Systems, UK, as merchant suppliers of QWIP FPAs. The modules are also expected to be introduced by Sofradir of France.

Commercial QWIP cameras are now sold by FLIR Systems, Indigo Systems, US, and AEG Infrarot-Module (AIM), Germany, with FPAs supplied by Acreo of Sweden, BAE Systems and the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Physics in Germany.

Jan Andersson, manager of the imaging department of Acreo, said: "The commercial market is certainly becoming more and more important. Most of our effort is now going into QWIPs - we are making deliveries of about 200 a year and hope to expand significantly on that figure. QWIPs have some important uses, for instance in medicine. They are not as expensive as other cooled devices and they are much better than microbolometers."

On the uncooled side, Acreo is developing amorphous silicon detectors. "They are robust and cheap," said Andersson. The firm is also looking into monolithic detectors based on gallium arsenide and silicon.The car market is generating intense interest in Europe. Autoliv of Sweden has produced a Volvo demonstrator car using a FLIR microbolometer camera. Andersson said: "Microbolometers in cars will really push the scaling up of the technology."

Raytheon in the US has ramped up production of its uncooled ferroelectric barium strontium titanate (BST) technology, which it supplies either as OEM modules or as complete cameras or systems, such as that used in the Cadillac.

"The success of the Cadillac night-vision system has been a mixed blessing", said Fulop, "because it also puts pressure on Raytheon to increase delivery of infrared systems with low profit margins. The company is now facing the challenge of selecting the appropriate technology to use as a low-cost successor to BST."

The logical choice - thin-film ferroelectric technology - now seems an unlikely candidate owing to some technical problems that have delayed its development. The most likely option is Raytheon's amorphous silicon microbolometer, which was developed under US military contracts.

Raytheon also manufactures two varieties of uncooled microbolometers (under licence from Honeywell, US): a standard commercial version that is used in a camera jointly made with Nippon Avionics of Japan; and a high-performance version that the company builds into dual-use and military products. In addition, Raytheon supplies high-performance cooled FPAs and cameras for a number of commercial and dual-use applications.

Canadian company Wescam has focused on using high-stability gyro-stabilized gimbals in conjunction with high-performance focal-plane cameras (made by other firms) to produce airborne surveillance systems. Many of Wescam's products are employed in dual-use applications.

Lockheed Martin in the US has sold its infrared imaging unit to BAE Systems, which has now become a leading producer of uncooled microbolometer FPAs made under licence from Honeywell. The company supplies infrared modules that are integrated into OEM products, as well as cooled infrared systems for military and commercial space applications.

Acquisition of the Lockheed Martin unit makes BAE Systems among the top three US uncooled systems firms, along with Raytheon and US company DRS, which recently bought the Boeing uncooled facility. The largest application of BAE's products to date has been in cameras used in fire-fighting. While the numbers used in vehicles will soon outstrip those used in any other application, the company doubts that this will contribute significantly to the predicted doubling of the market in four years. The Raytheon unit used in the Cadillac costs around USD 100, while cooled devices cost 10 to 20 times as much.All three US uncooled FPA manufacturers license technology from Honeywell. BAE Systems in the UK, however, uses a different ferroelectric technology and is making major investments. The firm this month opens Europe's largest cleanroom facility for uncooled technology in Southampton, UK.

It is also Europe's largest supplier of cooled systems for the military. The firm does not see a trend towards uncooled technology for high-performance applications, and believes that high-performance systems will be cooled for the next five to 10 years. At the low end, however, it sees uncooled devices replacing cooled ones and generating new markets such as night-vision systems on vehicles and in firemen's helmets.

In July, BAE Systems announced what it claims is the highest-resolution uncooled thermal imager in the world. The imager is based on a large 15.5 x 11.5 mm FPA and uses microscan techniques to generate an image of 768 x 576 mm display pixels, which is equivalent to a broadcast-quality black-and-white TV picture. It can detect temperature differences as low as 0.1°C.

BAE Systems' uncooled ferroelectric FPAs and modules have been used in the Cairns helmet-mounted fire-fighting system and in binoculars made by OIP Sensor Systems of Belgium and Signaal USFA of the Netherlands for the Dutch and British armies. For a short time FLIR Systems, US, offered a predictive maintenance camera that was based on BAE Systems' uncooled FPAs, but it has since been discontinued.Until recently, Boeing and the Rockwell Science Center,US, co-operated on several infrared projects. On the commercial side, Boeing focused on uncooled microbolometers (under licence from Honeywell) and acted as the only merchant supplier of microbolometers in chip form. However, the uncooled microbolometer activity did not fit in with the company's military business and it is selling its cooled and uncooled FPA operations, the latter to DRS of the US.

One firm that is growing rapidly in the US is Indigo Systems. The company, which sells a line of cooled and uncooled infrared cameras, is setting up indium antimonide and microbolometer-fabrication facilities and is also planning to enter high-volume uncooled markets. "Although the US supplies and consumes the most commercial and dual-use infrared systems, Europe and Japan are also important producers of this technology," said Fulop.

In France, Sofradir has been supplying mercury cadmium telluride FPAs and modules to a largely military market. However, it has recently introduced an amorphous silicon microbolometer that it manufactures for both commercial and dual-use applications. Cameras based on cooled and uncooled Sofradir FPAs are sold by Cedip for commercial applications.

In Germany, AIM manufactures cooled infrared FPAs and modules for mainly military, but also commercial and dual-use, applications. Jenoptik sells predictive maintenance cameras that are based on AIM platinum silicide FPAs.

In Israel, most infrared companies also supply a mainly military market. However, SCD Semi-Conductor Devices has started to sell indium antimonide focal plane arrays for commercial and dual-use applications.

The trend is certainly towards uncooled systems, with volume production of night-vision systems for luxury cars and commercial vehicles at the forefront of new markets. But expensive cooled systems will remain important in military and other applications where quality is the priority. Maxtech International www.maxtech-intl.com

Boston Electronics CorporationOmicron-Laserage Laserprodukte GmbHPhoton Engineering, LLCAUREA TECHNOLOGYLightTrans International GmbHDataRay Inc.Diverse Optics Inc.
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