25. June 2014
Making the invisible visible has long been a specialty of the U.S. military. Infrared (IR) systems that display thermal images improve soldiers’ situational awareness at night, through fog, in rain or snow, and more by showing the heat signatures of vehicles and people that can’t be seen by the naked eye. Over the past few decades, IR technology has achieved step-change improvements in defense applications, sharpening images and reducing the size, weight, and power of the systems aiding MATVs, aircraft, and head-mounted displays.
But now IR technology first championed by the defense community is spreading its roots to a number of new industries and applications. IR has woven itself into spaces as diverse as building contracting and agriculture, and new advances in infrared glass materials and other technologies could spread it even further. IR cameras can now be built cost-effectively at about the size of a quarter, making IR imaging technology more compact and affordable, and raising the potential for IR everywhere.
One compact IR camera for smartphones already made a splash at the Consumer Electronics Show in January and is slated for release later this year. The FLIR ONE snaps onto a phone like many other protective smartphone cases, adding just a few ounces to the phone’s weight in return for a precise heat map image of IR waves invisible to the naked eye.
Access to new, compact IR cameras in smartphones and other devices would simplify and expand the tools in professionals’ pockets in a number of industries:
Health care: With IR imaging on their phones, doctors and nurses can more easily and quickly track spikes in patients’ temperatures or spot inflammation. Breast-cancer screenings, scans for thyroid conditions or carpal tunnel syndrome, and more are simpler and more cost-effective. Also, elevated temperature detection is used internationally in airports as a protocol in the prevention of the spread of infectious diseases such as SARS.
Agriculture: IR measurements can tell farmers where crops are succeeding and failing, even how efficiently they’re photosynthesizing. With infrared cameras more affordable and portable, farmers can more efficiently judge the health of their crops, and if there’s crop damage, whether it’s the result of insects or water shortages. Compact IR cameras even give dairy farmers a cost-effective measurement of the quality of their milk.
Home construction and repair: Thermal imaging can spot property damage or window and door frames that could be better insulated. Once the purview of general contractors with expensive, advanced equipment, smaller, lower-cost infrared glass offers homeowners access to the same devices to scan their homes for roof leaks or drafty windows.
Automotive: For decades, safe driving at night or in rain or snow rested on the driver’s eyesight and the limits of headlights. More recently, several car manufacturers have integrated night-vision systems that detect infrared light and pick out pedestrians or animals long before drivers see them. A handheld infrared system allows car passengers to help drivers more safely navigate through weather or darkness no matter what car they’re driving.
The advent of more compact and cost-effective IR lenses could have profound effects on patient care, farming practices, home climate control, and more. A technology once designed to give soldiers a new depth of vision will soon offer us all a different way of seeing the world, turning the invisible visible.