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Electronic Imaging & Signal Processing

Eyeing the thermal imaging market

As the technology matures and becomes more economical, thermal imaging is poised on the verge of broad commercialization.

From oemagazine April 2002
31 April 2002, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.5200204.0008

If you've been around a while in this industry, then chances are you might take for granted what is right in front of you. Take a moment to thumb through the pages of this magazine and marvel at the wonders that the photonics industry—you, your colleagues, your customers, your suppliers—have developed. You will likely find technology and products that affect virtually every aspect of human existence: biomedicine, astronomy, security, physical science, entertainment, agriculture, biometrics, manufacturing, defense, and communications. Few technology sectors provide as much potential for human advancement on so many fronts.

One such front involves the extension of human visual perception beyond visible wavelengths. Thermal-imaging technology gives us the ability to see in the dark, to navigate through blinding dust or smoke, to measure heat, to detect and identify chemicals, or to track nonvisible lasers. Rapid advancements in this area include III-V compound semiconductors, micro-electric-mechanical systems (MEMS)-based structures, and mixed-signal integrated circuits that, when combined, yield detector technologies that operate in the 1.0 µm to 14 µm portion of the infrared (IR) spectrum.

The thermal-imaging industry is in transition. After dozens of years existing as an esoteric technology reserved for military, academia, R&D, and narrow niche markets, IR technology is on the brink of emerging as a dramatic new mainstream tool for countless applications, including security, firefighting, surveillance, and industrial imaging.

As an analogy, consider the history of the Global Positioning System (GPS). What began as a very high-end tool for defense applications migrated in a short amount of time into thousands of commercial uses, driven in large part by advances in atomic clocks, satellite control, microwave communication, VLSI, and time difference-of-arrival processing. Today GPS represents a multi-billion-dollar industry employing more than 100,000 people.

GPS was the answer to a simple but important question: "Where am I?" Similarly, IR technology answers another simple yet important question: "What's out there?" This question is critically important to the soldier or fighter pilot and is the reason why the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has continually funded a broad range of related R&D for more than 40 years. So far, unfortunately, thermal imaging has been slow to achieve broad commercialization. Because much of the IR imaging technology has involved expensive hand-crafted components and exotic support systems such as the coolers required to maintain the devices at cryogenic temperatures, the costs precluded penetration into mass markets.

Much of that is changing now. The best example is the advent and continuing maturation of MEMS-based uncooled detector technologies. With wafer-scale manufacturing and complete elimination of cooling requirements, or even the need for temperature stabilization, these devices promise true mass-production potential. As with any highly elastic market, as the prices come down, the volume markets emerge, including automotive and surgical applications. These trends have the attention of the industry and the investment community. Mobilization is underway, and it is only a matter of time until the full commercialization of IR technology occurs.

Over the next few years, the effects of the IR revolution will be felt worldwide. From the night-vision option in your next automobile to the thermal imager used by your surgeon, your everyday life will be impacted. Nonvisible imagers will be as ubiquitous as camcorders. And as the technology becomes widely available and understood, bright minds and entrepreneurs will discover countless new applications for this exciting and enabling technology. oe

Jeff Frank

Jeff Frank is vice president of business development at Indigo Systems Corp., Santa Barbara, CA.