Infrared Cameras Now Small Enough To Be In Your Smartphone

FLIR, a major manufacturer of infrared sensors, introduces a prototype camera small enough to go into your smartphone. Will your next phone be capable of thermal imaging?

Put away those night-vision goggles. FLIR, a leading manufacturer of infrared sensors, has married a smartphone to its state-of-the-art thermal camera in a concept it displayed at last week’s Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) expo in Washington, D.C.

The idea behind the eye-catching device, CEO Andrew Teich says, is to demonstrate the company’s new line of miniature Quark camera cores. But he does not rule out the possibility of turning the prototype into a real consumer gadget and giving consumers the chance to take IR pictures with their phones. That depends on whether FLIR can get high tech and low prices to meet halfway.

The company began rolling out Quark in the spring of 2011 as a follow-on to its Tau infrared series, which has been used on small drones such as the Army’s RQ-11 Raven. The new Quark core measures just three-quarters of an inch thick and comes in a range of resolutions, the most powerful being 640 x 480, or 0.3 megapixels.

Of course, none of the Quark camera cores will produce glossy, nighttime portraits you’d frame and hang in your living room. Still, Teich says, a 0.3-megapixel core with a 9-mm lens, like the one fitted into the camera-phone sled shown at AUVSI, “can spot a person at about 300 yards.”

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has shown great interest in thermal imagers small enough to fit in helmets, eyeglasses, rifle sights, minidrones, and cellphones. In Sept. 2011, it awarded more than $13 million in contracts to Raytheon, DRS, and BAE Systems to produce such cameras in two years.

FLIR has used its DARPA funds (taken from a different pot) to ruggedize its prototype for military users. However, the sled at the show is a commercial demonstrator—a configuration designed to impress, Teich says, “because the Quark is running off a very small battery, and it’s imaging in a very small space, and no one else has ever done this before.”

Thermal-imaging smartphones might seem a tad indulgent to the average person. But guided by its “Infrared Everywhere” mantra, FLIR has had success with pioneering unlikely markets. Take boating, where today people use infrared cameras for nighttime excursions. “We went to the marine market in 2006, and back then no one was putting thermal cameras on recreational boats,” Teich says. “Today we have a marine electronics division that’s a $50 million business.”

But with IR-enabled mobile devices, FLIR might have some early competition. Mµ Optics, a Chicago-based startup, has also developed a prototype intended for the DIY homeowner who wants to check for overworked electrical circuits, leaking insulation, and other problems. (Many companies make such a device now, but few in such a small form factor.) However, the Mµ Thermal Camera has a resolution of only 160 x 120 and looks like a digital camera glued to the back of a phone. Also, Louise Sengupta, director of advanced detection at BAE Systems, says her company will begin delivery of its own thermal-imaging phone in November.

FLIR probably would have to compromise on the picture resolution and heat sensitivity of its Quark imager to get it down to a consumer-friendly price, which Teich puts in the range of a few hundred dollars. The demonstrator in its current configuration would cost 10 times that amount.

“We’re really at an exploration phase at this point,” he says.