Are Smartphones The Future Of Thermal Imaging?

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 11:33am
Rachel Hemsley

Thermal imaging has been found to have numerous applications within various industries — within the manufacturing world, it has been widely utilised for predictive maintenance. The infrared image can instantly detect if a system is overheating, therefore problems are caught early, and pre-emptive action can be taken to resolve the issue.

According to data from CNA, they find seven faults in their average infrared thermography survey, and the amount saved because of this preventative maintenance is estimated at $500 for minor to intermediate faults and $3000 for serious faults — this money would have been spent on repairs if problem had gone unchecked.

Now, the shape of the thermal imaging industry is changing, and here’s why…

Advances in the Market and Technology

As with most technology, developments of more convenient and cheaper-to-produce models leads to industry growth. This was true in 1997 when the development of the micro bolometer (the first thermal imaging technology that didn’t require a cooling system) meant that thermal imaging manufacturers could reduce their prices. This is when commercial applications became clear, and widespread adoption of the use of thermal imaging cameras within the manufacturing industry occurred.

FLIR, the company who originally developed the thermal imaging camera for the military in 1958, have now furthered the development of thermal imaging by creating a way for it be to affordable and applied to everyday use.

They have been able to develop this because of the general higher demand for thermal imaging cameras — for instance, FLIR thermal imaging cameras have been integrated as a safety feature offered on BMWs (to enable a night vision mode road to help reduce accidents in darkness and low visibility conditions). This rise in demand and production volume, from BMW and other sources, allowed FLIR to lower their prices.

The FLIR innovation which allows this shift in the market is the Lepton Sensor. It’s smaller than any comparable technology made before and can be easily added to a smartphone or tablet, and like the micro bolometer, it does not need an external cooler to run — a lot of the larger thermal imaging technology does require cooling, which increases the cost. This has potential for various uses — medical devices, diagnostics tools, building controls or even as part of gaming. This technology has seen its first average consumer targeted incarnation as the FLIR ONE.


The FLIR ONE is a thermal imaging camera that can be easily added to an iPhone 5 or 5s as a phone case with a corresponding app. It is set to be released in spring 2014 and is priced at just under $350. While this may seem expensive from a general consumer perspective, thermal imaging cameras are generally sold for thousands of dollars rather than hundreds, so this is actually an incredibly cheap version of the technology. 

The FLIR ONE can detect a wide range of temperatures 32°F to 212° F (0°C to 100°C) and the infrared camera has a resolution of 80x60 — that’s 4,800 pixels. While this isn’t the highest resolution, FLIR have applied their patented multi-spectral dynamic imaging (MSX) tech to enhance the image. The FLIR ONE also has a visible light camera (resolution 640x480); MSX combines the thermal image with surface pattern edges from the visual image, enhancing the look of the thermal image. You can see an example of a video taken with the FLIR ONE here.

Personal Uses for FLIR ONE

This is the first thermal imaging camera of this calibre designed for personal use, although there are suggested uses for thermal imaging cameras, some are more legitimate than others — for example using it to detect heat loss and damp/water leaks in the home seems quite reasonable, whereas novelty applications for the device, such as playing hide and seek in a whole new way — while fun — seems a little unjustified given the price tag.

What’s interesting is that given the release of this technology on the smartphone (an Android version is set to be released later this year), thermal images can be easily shared and uploaded as with any other smartphone media files. Another intriguing dimension is that FLIR is planning to open this technology up and allow third parties to develop applications incorporating the FLIR ONE — is thermal imaging version of Snapchat in our futures? The combination of thermal imaging and social media is sure to be an entertaining one if little else.

Although it’s speculative as to whether the public will take to the use of thermal imaging technology — there is arguably a similar precedence set by the integration of GPS technology into mainstream use. It was a technology originally created for military use that was initially very expensive, but is now seamlessly integrated into practically every smartphone and new car, and used by a large proportion of society on a daily basis.

Professional Uses for FLIR ONE                                    

So, what does a more readily available, conveniently-sized and affordable thermal imaging camera mean for professionals?

It’s likely this will lead to infrared technology being more widely utilized within the industries it’s already popular in. However, it is unlikely to replace higher-end models that are needed to see more technical details, like with predictive maintenance. But the FLIR ONE could be useful as initial assessment tools or for regular monitoring of machinery in terms of a major malfunction — even a lay person could probably see if there was a significant difference in temperature and call a professional to double check it. The app also allows you to click on a point get the an estimate of the temperature. The instant share-ability factor is useful for getting a second opinion on an image.

The transportability and availability of this technology could be particularly useful within the emergency services, with more members of the police force, search and rescue and the fire department having thermal imaging in their back pockets — it could allow them to assess a situation a lot quicker and find relevant individuals. Thermal imaging is currently used by firemen to find victims in the smoke and hotspots; thermal imaging aided police in finding the second Boston bomber.

However, there is some scepticism surrounding the capabilities of the FLIR ONE without the enhancement provided by the visual camera — for instance, at night, the visual camera will be rendered ineffective, which means you’re stuck with the lower resolution. What’s more, the FLIR ONE is not yet been released, and the exact details of capability to detect details at a distance is yet to be confirmed. It may not be of a high enough resolution to warrant being dispatched into the hands of every emergency services individual.


Even if the FLIR ONE may not have an essential purpose right now and is unlikely to completely replace the higher-spec models that are used in professional realms , what’s exciting is that it represents a shift in the market — the cheapening and availability of thermal imaging technology for everyday use. It also seems to imply that the applications for this kind of technology are expanding and thus it is likely that demand for this technology and better, smaller, cheaper versions will increase which will most likely drive prices down.

This article was written by Rachel Hemsley on behalf of ISS, who specialise in selling electrical equipment including thermal imaging cameras.


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