Infra-red imaging is coming to your mobile phone…

Infra-red imaging is following the same path that CMOS image sensors and inertial sensors took: first dedicated to high-end and high-price applications, it is becoming affordable for consumer use. The new report from Yole Développement, Uncooled Infrared Imaging Technology & Market Trends, presents and analyzes the evolution of the uncooled imaging industry from high-end applications, which are recovering, to consumer applications, which are just starting to grow.The overall market for IR imaging applications reached a new high last year at $1.9B . The estimate for the growth over the next five years is an incredible 7% CAGR by value and 22% CAGR by volume.

Achieving this requires careful technical and production choices, decreasing the manufacturing cost and selling price. The price of a thermal camera was at least $3,000 six years ago. Now you can find a good quality IR imaging module for less than 10% of that figure, just $249. Yole’s sister company, System Plus Consulting, has produced teardown and reverse costing analyses of the flagship products from FLIR – see FLIR Systems FLIR ONE & LEPTON Consumer Thermal Imager with Microbolometer – and Seek Thermal – see Seek Thermal Infrared Camera & Raytheon IR Microbolometer. These reports show the technical choices these companies have made to decrease manufacturing costs.

We have also interviewed Mr. Tim Fitzgibbons, Co-Founder and Board Director and Bill Parrish, Co- Founder, CTO and Board Director Chairman of Seek Thermal, on the early success of the company and what comes next. Below, he explains how IR imaging will come to your mobile phone sooner than expected.

Yole Développement: What products and applications is Seek Thermal targeting?

Tim Fitzgibbons: Bill Parish and I have been in the IR “business” for quite a while. We started building products for the military, then industry, then commercial customers and now, with Seek, we hope to bring thermal imaging to the consumer. Clearly, Seek is small and just starting but we envision a variety of consumer products introduced under the Seek brand and others offered in partnership with a variety of OEMs. Certainly low cost, high performance “platforms” – formerly “cores” – will find their way into a number of commercial and industrial products too.
Courtesy of Seek Thermal


YD: Can you also introduce the history of the company and the type of collaborations and partnerships you have put in place in order to achieve your goals?

TF: Seek Thermal itself is only three years old but is quite “mature” due to our IP partnership with Raytheon and our detector manufacturing partnership with Freescale Semi, which is soon to be merged with NXP. These relationships have allowed us to “hit the ground running”!

YD: Can you comment on how successful the Seek Thermal device was in 2014?

TF: Our first product was launched only in the fourth quarter of 2014 so the results for 2014 were modest but encouraging.

YD: You are competing with very large companies, like FLIR. What are Seek Thermal’s competitive advantages for emerging consumer applications of IR imaging?

TF: We don’t consider ourselves as competitors of FLIR. We see ourselves as “co-developers” of a huge consumer and OEM market that is just now considering how to use thermal vision.

YD: Do you foresee integration into a smartphone in the mid-term? What would be the challenges to overcome?

TF: The smartphone is “eating” everything, so we don’t doubt for a minute that thermal imaging could end up inside a smartphone. Midterm? We don’t know. There’s a lot of cost and size issues to address first.



YD: Are you targeting new applications outside the consumer market?


TF: Yes, but we’re not ready to talk much about those “targets” in the near term. Certainly, MSA’s thermal imager – built directly into their fire safety equipment – is an example of a Seek platform in a non-consumer application. I assume that you have seen it. Otherwise, go to YouTube and search for MSA.

YD: What do you see as next big opportunities?

TF: A little infant company like Seek should be allowed to keep a few secrets, n’est-ce pas? (‘Don’t you think?’, in French)

YD: Are automotive or building automation important new application areas for Seek Thermal?

TF: Our partner Freescale/NXP is a very large player in the automotive space. Seek is actively engaged with building automation and IoT companies.

YD: How was 2014 for you, as you launched your first product that year?

TF: Fun, hectic, rewarding, instructional. Fortunately my hair fell out many years ago!

YD: What have you learned from early market exposure and first customer feedback?

TF: Consumers and “pro-sumers” are finding new uses for thermal imaging every day. Our web site is filling up with photos from customers that are using our first products – the WFOV and NFOV cell phone dongles.

YD: What are the perspectives for 2015?

TF: As a baby company, one learns to keep one’s focus on sales, sales and sales. 2015 will be our first full year of sales – so far we are doing quite well.

YD: What are the main features of your technology today?

TF: 12 micron pixels, wafer level packaging, proprietary calibration technology and a very advanced ROIC [return on invested capital].

YD: How do you compare your products to the others, like the FLIR One, or with competing technologies, like Bosch, Heiman, or Pyreos?

TF: Our 12 micron pixels allow us to pack quite a few pixels into a small die and our readout integrated circuit under the pixels is extremely clever, allowing us to offer excellent performance and thermography over a very broad temperature range. Despite using a 12 micron pixel, our NEDT [noise equivalent differential temperature] is comparable.

YD: What are the next improvements to be done?

TF: No comment!

YD: Will you work at reducing cost, size, improving performances, adding new functionalities..?

TF: Mostly cost.

YD: What impact for your company of the proposed change in ITAR?

TF: We are studying it right now.

YD: Will you work at reducing cost, size, improving performances, adding new functionalities..?

TF: Mostly cost.

YD: What will be the main area of evolution of the IR imaging market in the next five years?

TF: We read the Yole reports to find out! Clearly our disruption in price and performance should cause a significant, disruptive jump in the market size, applications and everything that follows – but you will tell us about the rest!

YD: What can you expect for Seek Thermal?

TF: We hope we can reward our employees and investors – both groups are shareholders – with value – in the excitement and experience of growing an industry-changing company and the monetary rewards that may come also!

 

Tim Fitzgibbons is the Chief Strategic Officer, Board Member and co-founder of Seek Thermal, Inc. Tim has over 35 years working at notable technology companies, ranging in size from start-up to large scale, in both commercial and goverment business sectors. For the last 25 years, Tim has held senior executive positions: chief engineer of Rockwell’s Military Microelectronic Division, P&L director of Rockwell’s Electro-Optical division and president, CEO and board member of Indigo Systems from 1999 until its acquisition by FLIR Systems in 2004. Throughout his career, Tim has been awarded multiple patents for technology used in consumer electronics today. Tim holds a Bachelor of Arts in Physics and a Masters and PhD in electrical engineering.

Bill Parrish is the Chief Technology Officer, Chairman of the Board and Co-founder of Seek Thermal, Inc. Bill is a leading expert in infrared technology, having successfully started several companies, published numerous papers and awarded patents in the field of thermal imaging. He is an MSS Fellow, a recipient of the Levenstein Award for Infrared Technology Leadership and Management, The South Coast Business and Technology Entrepreneur of the Year (2002), and University of California Santa Barbara Narayanamurti Entrepreneurial Leadership Co-Award (2004). Before founding Seek Thermal, Bill founded Indigo Systems and led the company’s extraordinary growth during its early years. He remained chairman of Indigo’s board of directors until the company merged with FLIR Systems in 2004. Parrish also founded Amber Engineering which focused on commercializing advanced military infrared technology. Prior to starting and running those companies he was employed by Hughes Aircraft and Santa Barbara Research Center. Bill has a Bachelor of Science, Masters and PhD in electrical engineering from UC Santa Barbara.

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