A multitude of uses bring success to the uncooled IR imaging market.
UNCOOLED IR IMAGERS ARE ON THEIR WAY TO MULTIPLE USES
Over the past ten years, the uncooled infrared (IR) imaging market has been driven primarily by defense applications, then by commercial ones. Currently, growth comes through thermography, surveillance, personal vision systems (PVS) and security markets. But the high cost of the technology has restrained the use of microbolometers to niche/medium volume applications. The cost/performance ratio has not yet opened the way to consumer applications.
However, this is changing. Manufacturing costs are decreasing, with the introduction of new manufacturing processes such as wafer level optics, wafer level packaging, and silicon lenses. This, coupled with a growing public awareness for the benefits for infrared vision, is opening new doors. One example is the 2016 commercial success of FLIR’s CATS60, the first smartphone with infrared vision capability.
2016 was a good year for the microbolometer market. There were almost 900,000 uncooled IR camera shipments, worth $2.7B in revenues thanks to a dynamic commercial market and continued growth for military applications. Many commercial applications drove this growth, including thermography, surveillance, PVS and firefighting. In 2022, we estimate there will be 1.7M units shipped.
Thermography is still the leading commercial market by far, in both value and volume. We estimate that there will be 500,000 thermography units shipped annually by 2022. As camera prices continue to fall, with several new products below $1000, sales are growing.
Surveillance is another interesting market. Until recently, thermal cameras have primarily been used in high-end surveillance for critical and government infrastructure. New municipal and commercial applications with lower price points are now arising, including traffic, parking, power stations and photovoltaic planning. We estimate this market will grow at almost 17% over 2017-2022 to reach 300,000 units by 2022.
Night vision in cars, including autonomous vehicles, could boost the microbolometer market. Current vision systems use a combination of visible light, LIDAR and radar and can provide information about a vehicle’s surroundings. However, these systems are limited by certain factors, including available light and the need to discern the type of object detected, whether it’s a human, animal or an inanimate obstacle. Thermal imaging systems could sense, detect and identify obstacles even at long distances in the kilometer range, and in poor visibility at night and in bad weather. China is already a large market for automotive night vision, absorbing 25% of the total number of systems produced. In coming years, China will continue to account for a high share of this market.
Other commercial applications also paving the way to market growth include firefighting, PVS, maritime, drones and robots, smart buildings, smart homes and shops. The demand for PVS such as portable binoculars, monoculars and sights for rifles was significant in 2016. They are used in patrolling borders, law enforcement and increasingly for consumer outdoor use, including mountain sports and hunting. The USA is the largest market by far because of its large hunting and law enforcement markets. Commercial Unmanned Aerial Vehicles represent an emerging thermal imaging business thanks to Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP) and cost reduction product trends. This interesting sector overlays the existing commercial IR market. It covers thermography for building inspection, agriculture, gas imaging, surveillance, and pipeline inspection. Beyond these markets, a multitude of new applications could be developed around uncooled IR imaging technology including smart building energy control, swimming pool surveillance, and car driver monitoring. If we consider an optimistic scenario where an infrared camera is integrated into a smartphone, market volumes could reach almost 12 million units in 2022.
TWO LEADERS WITH DIFFERENT STRATEGIES, FACING MANY CHALLENGERS
The uncooled infrared imaging market is still controlled by a few players. Two of them hold more than 75% market share by volume: FLIR and ULIS. Both of them grew impressively in 2016.
ULIS achieved 30% revenue growth compared to 2015. Since its inception, the company has an average 20% growth per year. However, FLIR is still the unchallenged market leader. It has shipped a million Lepton core devices in three years, integrated in over 20 different products. Lepton is a key device that has contributed to FLIR’s success. But over recent years, FLIR has developed a smart strategy to diffuse uncooled infrared imaging technology into a wide range of different products for different applications to ‘democratize’ it.
Besides FLIR and ULIS, many others players are also benefiting from IR imaging market growth:
• SEEK Thermal has introduced its new, higherperformance RevealPRO, and CompactPRO products as the company moves from consumer products to more high-end products.
• Players such as BAE Systems or Leonardo DRS are benefiting from the defense market growth cycle that could still last for a few more years.
• Newcomers are introducing their products, for example, Teledyne Dalsa released its first Vox microbolometers in 2017.
• Many companies in China are developing their own microbolometers. They do not produce large volumes today but the domestic market has great potential.
• On the other hand companies like Bosch, long involved in the MEMS and infrared businesses, have changed their strategies.
Where the market demands small arrays below 32x32 pixels, for smart home or buildings applications, microbolometers are not cost competitive. So thermopile and pyroelectric sensor suppliers are growing in this market segment. The companies benefiting include Excelitas, Heinmann Sensors, Omron, Melexis, Panasonic, for people counting and detection, and Fluke-Irisys, for low resolution thermography.
EVERY SEGMENT OF THE UNCOOLED INFRARED SUPPLY CHAIN IS GAINING MOMENTUM
While many suppliers are benefiting from the uncooled infrared imaging market, so too are foundries. Today, most key U.S. microbolometer manufacturers have moved production to large integrated circuit (IC) foundries whose 8” production lines reduce manufacturing costs and increase flexibility. By partnering with foundries, microbolometer players can benefit from semiconductor know-how andequipment. This is a significant step on the path to becoming a mainstream semiconductor device as happened for CMOS image sensors and MEMSmicrophones.
Lenses are critical elements of an uncooled infrared camera. Optics therefore account for a significant portion of infrared core costs in high-end applications such as military or surveillance. Whereas one or two lenses are generally used by cameras in low-end markets, high-end cameras need up to five lenses, thus increasing the price significantly. And in the future, optics suppliers will play a greater role in the supply chain. Germanium has historically been the IRtransparent material used in thermal camera lenses. But over recent years it has been progressively replaced by chalcogenide molded glass in some low optical performance, short-range and pricesensitive applications like thermography, firefighting, automotive, surveillance, and smartphones. Cheaper infrared lenses are now possible using micromachined silicon lenses like FLIR is using in its FLIR One.
Optics and electronics are the largest parts of a camera core and a future trend could be size reduction. Traditionally electronics are mounted on bulky printed circuit boards (PCBs). But using an application specific integrated circuit (ASIC) stacked below the PCB, as FLIR does in its Lepton core, reduces the size significantly. It opens the way to further 3D integration, as through-silicon vias (TSVs) could be used to connect the ASIC and microbolometer. TSVs are already used to connect readout ICs (ROICs) and sensors. Using a smartphone’s processing power could also reduce the amount of electronics in the camera core.
By 2022, we estimate the ecosystem for uncooled IR cameras will be worth $1.6B, excluding sales margins.
- Latest industry news and analysis of new market entries and exits
- Up-to-date analysis of 11 market segments including thermography, surveillance, automotive, smartphone and personal vision systems
- Updated scenario for IR integration into smartphones and autonomous cars
- Estimates of sensor manufacturers’ 2016 market shares and the future evolution of those figures
- Updated forecasts of market value and volumes for the 2016-2022 period
- Update of latest technological trends and ongoing developments
- Comparison between microbolometers and other uncooled IR imaging technologies such as pyroelectric sensors, thermopiles and thermodiodes
- Market analysis and forecast for imager cores including board electronics, packaging, lenses, assembly and test