New Thermal Imaging Platform Offers Opportunities for IR Sensing Devices
James Anderton posted on April 18, 2016 |
Smaller, lighter and lower power high-performance cores allow new product development with minimal i...

Fighter pilots and civil engineers encounter very different problems.

The aviator needs to maneuver his jet into an advantageous position to launch a missile against an adversary, while the engineer might need to find the source of a damaging leak in a membrane roof. Both tasks are “mission critical,” and both use a similar technology to solve the problem: thermal imaging.

Why use thermal imaging?

The ability to convert invisible infrared emissions into a visible form has numerous practical uses, but historically there have been obstacles to widespread adoption in industrial and consumer goods.

The FLIR Boson. (Image courtesy of FLIR.)
The FLIR Boson. (Image courtesy of FLIR.)

The major issue was cost. Originally derived from military missile IR seeker heads and gun sights, achieving good performance and discrimination against ambient noise and spurious signals required cooled detectors, typically using cryogenic systems. Even when solid state systems reduced the power needs and fragility of vacuum tube devices, costs remained high.

Unit cost was one barrier, but from a product design and assembly perspective, the engineering between sensor and display was another. Integration of power supplies, display drivers, A/D converters and other image processing devices drove up cost and complexity, restricting applications to military and high-value commercial devices.

Recent developments by Wilsonville, Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc., however, suggest that thermal imaging may be poised to go mainstream in consumer goods such as the CAT® S60 cell phone as well as traditional applications. FLIR has released the first powerful, SoC-based long-wave infrared (LWIR) uncooled camera core that contains drivers and interface electronics in a single, small-footprint device.

The FLIR Boson LWIR camera uses the Movidius Myriad 2 Vision Processing Unit (VPU) allowing FLIR to implement its XIR™ expandable infrared video processing architecture while still leaving significant compute resources available on-chip for customers to implement additional image processing and analytic algorithms.  XIR includes advanced image processing, super resolution, noise filtering, and blending algorithms. FLIR states that the Myriad 2 core is the most advanced thermal core in the industry, with built-in support for both physical and protocol-level interface standards, combined with hardware and software support for auxiliary sensors such as GPS, IMU and visible light cameras, interesting new devices can be developed at low-cost with design simplicity.

Boson can be specified in packages as small as 21 x 21 x 11 mm, with weights as low as 7.5 g. Boson is also rugged, with wide temperature limits from -40 C to +80 C. Power consumption is minimal, as low as 500 mW.

Applications? Many markets benefit from IR imaging. With design and manufacturing engineers freed from the traditionally higher cost, weight and size of legacy IR imaging systems, Boson offers intriguing possibilities for major markets:

Automotive

Autonomous vehicles are coming, with several companies conducting tests on public roads this year. Sensors are a crucial component to ensure that autonomous cars and trucks can operate safely, recognizing pedestrians as well as other vehicles.

The majority of autonomous vehicles currently rely on a combination of LIDAR, infrared sensors and communication with intelligent traffic systems, but drivers can also benefit from infrared imaging. Automotive night vision systems have been available for over ten years and increase drivers’ perception and ability to see distances beyond the reach of their vehicle’s headlights.

Thermal imaging used to detect pedestrians. (Image courtesy of FLIR.)
Thermal imaging used to detect pedestrians. (Image courtesy of FLIR.)
From collision avoidance to object recognition to being able to see longer distances at night, hundreds of thousands of drivers have benefitted from the safety that the sensor provides.   This technology has historically been available in premium brand automobiles including BMW, Audi, and Cadillac.   However, the progressively lower cost of thermal cameras could lead to their wider adoption in the mid-range market, similar to the spread of rear view cameras in recent years. The addition of thermal capability to rear view and lane change cameras will add a significant performance edge over visible-wavelength-only systems; a high value feature to the competitive premium auto segment.

Security

We live in a world of increasing demand for security. It’s not enough to have a few CCTV cameras positioned to monitor critical areas; cameras need to be able to see in the dark, as well as through fog or precipitation.

In the past, security cameras with thermal imaging capabilities were reserved for high-security installations such as government facilities and military bases. The upfront cost of purchasing a thermal camera core—whether for an existing security system or a new one—wasn’t the only barrier to entry. 

An infrared security camera identifies two people in a parking lot. (Image courtesy of FLIR.)
An infrared security camera identifies two people in a parking lot. (Image courtesy of FLIR.)
Integration issues in this market are more complex than other applications because by definition, security systems are designed to protect assets, which creates both the motivation and an illicit market for defeat technologies.

Hardening security vision systems against attack means protecting both software and hardware. All-in-one sensors with a minimum of supporting electronics are inherently harder to hack. Plus, low cost and simplicity lets designers control costs while devoting more resources toward protecting systems against attack.

The light weight and small form factor allows new possibilities in thermal security imaging, including embedded sensors in vehicles or cargoes, and drone applications.

Agriculture

Drones are evolving toward more than military applications; they’re rapidly growing in popularity in the agricultural sector. Crop dusting is one potential application, but even though the payload capacity of drones is increasing, a more immediately useful application is aerial imaging.

Drones give farmers an inexpensive way to monitor irrigation, soil variations and even pest or fungal infestations that can be difficult to discern from the ground. 

Infrared image of an arboreal nursery.
Infrared image of an arboreal nursery.
More impressively, drones equipped with infrared cameras can give users the ability to create 3D thermal maps of their fields, highlighting differences between healthy and distressed plants that can’t be seen with the naked eye, or from ground level.

Drones with heavyweight payload capabilities are expensive and require unique FAA licensing requirements, but very small lightweight units are significantly cheaper and easier to operate. Thermal imaging systems small enough (Boson can weigh as little as 7.5 grams) to be carried by those smaller drones makes low-cost imaging possible for many agricultural users.

Building/Construction/Industrial

If you’ve ever lived in a drafty home, you know how frustrating finding and sealing the source of a leak can be. If you’re an engineer, using a handheld thermal imaging device to track down a leak in a commercial membrane roof can mean thousands of dollars saved.

Inspecting solar panels on a roof using thermal imaging. (Image courtesy of FLIR.)
Inspecting solar panels on a roof using thermal imaging. (Image courtesy of FLIR.)
The roofing and professional building maintenance industries routinely use handheld thermal cameras for this purpose, but what about the light industrial/consumer/building trades markets?

FLIR is one company with low-cost consumer units, but in highly profitable advanced DIY/building trades markets, for example, high-technology is in its infancy.

Lower-cost OEM level devices like Boson could put thermal imaging into devices never imagined possible in the construction trades. Besides the obvious applications in HVAC, hot water and irrigation systems, thermal imaging could be incorporated into tools and equipment where infrared reveals what can’t be seen with the naked eye. Industrial equipment can also benefit. Saws, abrasive cutting equipment and laser devices, for example, are volume production machines with a form factor and cost profile that gives thermal imaging real possibilities for product differentiation in crowded markets.

Safety

Firefighting is one of the most dangerous jobs around, but it can be made safer with the right equipment. These days, thermal imaging is a must-have tool for firefighters, enabling them to locate individuals in low visibility conditions and providing critical initial assessments of building hotspots.

Firefighters use thermal imaging to identify hotspots in a contained blaze. (Video courtesy of FLIR.)

In the past, the steep price of thermal imaging technology was a barrier to its widespread adoption in firefighting. But as the technology becomes less expensive and more readily available, the possibility of every firefighter carrying thermal imaging equipment gets closer to reality.

Additionally, as the price/performance ratio improves, the technology could be used to stop fires before they start. One possibility could be wearable thermal imagers worn by plant personnel, networked to intelligence systems that could detect hotspots or leaks in process piping before they become visible to the naked eye.

The same drone-mounted technology used for agricultural applications can also create a new generation of rapidly deployable search-and-rescue vehicles for land and sea-based operations.

With operating costs at a fraction of that needed for manned aircraft and helicopters, search and rescue capability could be extended dramatically, especially over coastlines and shipping lanes.

The potential uses of low-cost, high-performance longwave infrared imaging appear limitless, but for the product designer the complexities of adding thermal capability to legacy designs was costly.

New generation, low-cost, high performance camera cores that integrate easily into legacy designs and speed “clean sheet” development will add IR thermal imaging to new devices at lower cost and with shorter lead times than the conventional system approach.

For more information, visit the FLIR website.

FLIR Systems has sponsored this post. It had no editorial input into this post. All opinions are mine. James Anderton.

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