Predator watch: solar panels for the Flir camera system being installed in a national park in Kenya as part of WWF's wildlife crime technology project
Predator watch: solar panels for the Flir camera system being installed in a national park in Kenya as part of WWF's wildlife crime technology project

The 1987 science fiction film Predator spooked contemporary cinemagoers by providing the alien antagonist with thermal vision that gave it a critical advantage when hunting humans in the central American jungle.

Thermal imaging, which uses sensors to detect infrared light to produce images on a screen, has been in service since the early part of last century. It was initially deployed on ships to detect icebergs, and was later adapted for use by armed forces and rescue services.

But it has taken a long time for the technology to creep into consumer devices. Hunters can now stalk deer with a monocular device, such as the Scout TK, which uses thermal-imaging sensors. These reveal the location of an animal in the pitch black, effectively giving it as much chance of survival as the Predator’s victims.

Flir, the company that makes the Scout TK, believes that thermal imaging has a shot at becoming mainstream after smartphones featuring its lenses and sensors hit the market.

It is the first attempt by Flir, pronounced “fleer”, which takes its name from the acronym for “forward looking infrared”, to enter the consumer market. The company hopes the CAT phone will be the first of many to use its sensors as it pushes further into a segment where its traditional rivals, including Raytheon and BAE Systems, do not operate.

The CAT S60 handset (which costs about £500), developed by British company Bullitt Group, the first dedicated thermal-imaging phone to hit the market, has found an unexpected audience. The ability of the technology to monitor temperature has attracted do-it-yourself enthusiasts, who use it to look for drafts, leaking radiators and damp spots just by pointing the lens at the walls.

Even more unusual is a handful of gadget geeks who have bought the phone to create thermal images to post on social networking sites. Some people, according to Flir, have used it to check whether the sushi they are about to buy is warm and thus should be avoided. Others have taken it into bakeries to find the freshest bread, still hot from the oven.

The chunky CAT S60 is a niche device but Flir is banking on the “superpower” element of the thermal-imaging technology to catch on. It cites the experience of GPS, once a technology used just for navigation but now a vital ingredient of any smartphone to deliver location-based services, as a precedent.

Oregon-based Flir, a business valued at $4.8bn, is an unlikely consumer brand. It started life in 1978 as an infrared-imaging supplier for airborne applications. In 1998 it acquired Agema, a Swedish rival that invented the first commercial infrared scanner designed to inspect power lines in the 1950s. That camera was so big that it needed to be mounted on the back of a truck. The more recent development of the Lepton imager, a thermal imaging camera which is the size of a coin, has opened the door for the technology to be used in consumer devices.

Ben Wood of CCS Insight, a market analysis company, says: “A thermal-imaging sensor could become a popular addition not just for the thermal camera functions but other capabilities, such as measuring a user’s temperature or detecting movement. Ultimately it will come down to the additional cost associated with adding the technology.”

Benedict Evans, a partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, argues the technology is suitable for drones, agriculture and security, while the reduction in cost of the sensors means it has a future in phones. But the key to its development, he says, could lie finding a daily consumer use for phone-based infrared technology, for instance in games such as Pokémon Go.

Uses of thermal imaging: from wildlife protection and cutting crime to diagnosing problems in buildings

While thermal-imaging technology is not yet to be found in mainstream mobile devices, it has been adapted for use in a variety of unusual ways.

● The environmental protection charity WWF is testing the use of thermal-imaging cameras in central Kenya to spot poachers and alert rangers to their presence.

The cameras, erected on poles, can tell the difference between an animal radiating heat and a human. The WWF says that if the trials prove successful it will look to use more thermal-imaging systems to monitor borders and hopefully help to reduce the amount of wildlife crime.

● Illegal mining is an another big problem in Africa. This not only harms the profits of the affected companies, it creates safety problems if trespassers sneak on to the site to conduct illicit excavations.

Secu-Systems of Johannesburg developed thermal-imaging CCTV-style cameras for mines in Tanzania that can detect heat over a 6km radius and spot trespassers who have escaped the net of traditional security systems. The number of weekly arrests has reached between 75 and 100 as a result of the thermal-imaging cameras.

● Thermal cameras may detect living creatures but they also determine the temperature of inanimate objects such as buildings. Italian company DarkWave Thermo’s camera is used for building diagnostics — specifically to investigate whether the tiles and wall claddings on older buildings are about to fall off.

The Brescia-based company developed the camera for inspections in Milan to pinpoint unsafe parts of the façades of old buildings. That saves labour costs when compared to long and costly manual inspections.

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