Andy Teich, president of commercial systems at Flir, discusses the growing role of thermal technology in ITS and his company’s latest high-profile acquisition with Jason Barnes.Andy Teich,
Flir positions itself as the world leader in thermal imaging systems across many market verticals including defence, law enforcement and security, industrial and automotive/transport. The company itself though, says Teich, is highly vertically integrated within thermal technology. “Flir is the leader in this space, manufacturing three to four times the number of uncooled thermal sensors of its single largest competitor,” he says.
“A key tenet is that volume is the key to cost, and cost is the biggest obstacle to thermal technology’s wider adoption.”
Flir controls the foundry process and so can directly affect cost by manufacturing the silicon detectors at the core of its products itself, he points out.
Thermal cameras have already demonstrated dramatic price decreases in recent years: 20 years ago, a camera would have cost around $50,000, but that had fallen to around $15,000 by a decade ago. Today, the price is as low as $2,000 and Teich says the target is “in the hundreds”.
Automotive influencesBut sales volumes will be needed to drive that, he admits. That was why, in the mid-2000s, Flir started to engage with the auto industry.
The company is paired with Tier One automotive component supplier
“A thermal camera combined with on-board video analytics has the ability to see three to four times farther than the standard halogen headlights on a motor vehicle,” says Teich. “That’s a big potential safety improvement because at 60-plus miles per hour with standard halogens you’re out-driving your headlights’ ability to detect and your own ability to stop.
“There are roughly 61m cars and light trucks produced annually,” he continues. “If we can place systems in even a relatively small percentage of those vehicles, it’s still a substantial number. At the moment the total figure is less than 100,000 vehicles per year but it’s growing. That’s going to drive costs downward in all markets, including ITS.”
Moves into ITSThe company’s more traffic-oriented thermal technology developments actually grew out of dealings with the University of Nevada, which was looking for ways to improve stop-bar detection applications in the face of highly variable outdoor light conditions and dust/ precipitation. Thermal technology, with the supporting algorithms for analytics, offers advantages in this respect but again, cost is an issue, says Teich.
“Nevertheless, we’ve developed the FC Series cameras specifically for the traffic sector because we realise the market has potential,” he adds. “We also realised that we needed to make an acquisition in the ITS space to further develop this potential.”
That led to discussions with a number of companies and, eventually, the announcement that Flir was to acquire automated incident detection (AID) specialist
“Traficon is a provider of turnkey solutions incorporating video analytics and visible light cameras. Fundamentally, it produces video analytics algorithms and the hardware they run on,” comments Teich.
“The company was a good fit for us because we can benefit from those algorithms, and not just in the traffic market. The ability to differentiate between an animal and a person, for instance, has big applications in the security sector when you’re looking to identify what’s attempting to cross a boundary or breach a perimeter. An animal might be of no interest whatsoever – whereas a human is a very different prospect.”
Other verticalsThe Traficon acquisition dovetails with another – that of Lorex, which specialises in the DIY home security market.
Lorex sells around a million visible light cameras a year and Teich wants to see a significant number of those sales converted to thermal technology. Predominantly, the applications will be for people detection: Teich cites the example of the remote monitoring of a holiday chalet where local fauna on the veranda, for example, are of no consequence but the presence of a human might well be; conventional video motion detection won’t differentiate between the two, he stresses.
The underpinning aim, together with ongoing technological development, is to have ‘visible plus thermal’ available at a price close to that of visible-only.
“We’re betting on the future in that sense,” Teich continues. “Forward-looking infra-red started as a military technology. It progressed to dual-use and it’s on the way to becoming broadly commercialised. At that point, we want Flir to be a leader in these new markets.”
ITS applicationsIn terms of ITS, he sees four predominant applications: automatic incident detection (AID) in tunnels; stop-bar detection; bicycle detection; and pedestrian crossing management.
“The advantage for AID applications in tunnels is that thermal technology can see through smoke, whereas with visible light cameras you’re effectively blind after the first few seconds if there’s a conflagration of any great significance. I don’t think that video will go away but it’ll be a case of different roles. Thermal will take over where there’s smoke or darkness to deal with,” he says.
“For stop-bar detection applications, again we’ll supply a combination solution.
Thermal is generally best but in some thermal crossover situations, such as when the ambient temperature is going from hot to cold, visible light could still provide a better solution.
“Bicycle detection and pedestrian crossing management are emergent applications,” he adds. “Bicycle detection is becoming a big issue in California right now, where there’s a desire to detect bicycles and change signal status. That’s more difficult to exhibitions.
It’s not a fully integrated solution with all detection and analytics in the camera, however I think you can expect to see something to this end by the time that the ITS World Congress comes around later in the year.
“Pedestrian crossing management will again use a combination thermal/white light solution with integrated analytics. Traficon and its European peers probably lead the world here but we are seeing systems come on-stream in the US, in places such as California and New York. Cost-effectiveness is going to be very much the key for this application.”
Fusion trendBringing previously discrete and often well-separated technologies together to realise new applications is a current trend and Teich sees thermal technology as a prime example of this.
“The integration of thermal and visible light will be common, of that I have no doubt – not least because we have some powerful patents in this area. Traficon integrates visible light and radar already; adding thermal is really quite easy,” he states.
With market volume to its advantage, Flir would seem to have left little space for competitors. Despite Teich’s insistence on the use of the ‘thermal technology’ term, Flir has a mantra: ‘infrared everywhere’. Its efforts to add value with thermal in many different aspects of life will still provide competitors with some room for manoeuvre, Teich feels.
“In any market sector, you always get those with different approaches to solving a problem. In the thermal technology space, like any other, that’ll translate into low- through to high-end products with different levels of sophistication,” he says.
“Where a market leader creates opportunities, other will follow. You will see other suppliers with their own solutions. They’ll probably offer higher-performance, more value-rich solutions than some of Flir’s/Traficon’s, if only because they may struggle to offer the same at the same price. Other thermal detector technologies may also emerge with different levels of price/performance,” he adds.