FLIR Systems recently revealed a prototype infrared camera attachment for the Apple iPhone platform. The iPhone “sled” allows users to slide their phone into the attachment and view their surroundings in the infrared spectrum. If it should ever see production, the new FLIR iPhone sled has the potential to radically expand the applications and reach of thermal imaging, from building inspection to personal security.
The sled itself is actually composed of two parts: one part fits around three sides of the iPhone similar to a minimalist iPhone case or bumper, while the main part of the sled contains the thermal camera and an external battery. Similar to any phone case, the bumper stays on the iPhone even when not connected to the sled, and provides a quick, convenient way to connect the iPhone to the sled. Once connected, the user can capture and save thermal images to the iPhone. The software also includes the ability to change color palettes, including the popular choices of grayscale and ironbow.
One very impressive function of the prototype is its ability to produce MSX enhanced thermal images using the iPhone’s excellent built-in camera. MSX combines the visible and thermal images into one detail rich view on the iPhone’s display. Whereas items of the same temperature would usually be the same color on a thermal camera, FLIR’s MSX allows the user to clearly understand the target area by stripping edge data out of the visible image and embossing it under the thermal image. The net effect is a thermal image that still has its full, vivid thermal coloring, while being much easier to understand.
The FLIR iPhone case makes use of the Quark camera core, a tiny 0.75” cube with great resolution and low power requirements. The FLIR Quark core is available in resolutions of 320 x 240 and 640 x 480, with a sensitivity of 0.05 ºC or 50 mK. The Quark can be configured with a wide variety of lenses, including 6.3mm, 9mm, 13mm, 14mm, 17mm, 19mm, 25mm, and a 35mm telephoto lens. Frame rates vary from a full 60 Hz down to an export ready 7.5 Hz.
The prototype iPhone infrared camera attachment has been exhibited with a 9mm lens, and is also pictured with a 13mm lens. With the 9mm lens and 640 x 480 resolution, the prototype would be able to detect a person at over 800 ft (250m). But with the available 35mm lens, the sled has the potential to see a person at over 3000 ft (940m), or a warm vehicle at over a mile and a half away. The FLIR iPhone sled concept operates on a lower frame rate, likely around 9 Hz. Though pictured with an iPhone 3, the prototype has been exhibited attached to an iPhone 4.
As of now the prototype is just a prototype, an experiment by FLIR to push the envelope in what is possible in portable infrared imaging. If FLIR should ever decide to create a production version of the iPhone thermal camera sled, the potential applications seem wide ranging. One can easily imagine that electricians, building inspectors, contractors, and HVAC technicians could benefit greatly from an iPhone infrared camera. Mechanics, engineers, and all varieties of maintenance personnel would also have immediate applications. Many uses, though, are likely yet to be discovered. Having a thermal camera at hand would surely inspire many “Aha” moments for creative users. So while destined to remain a concept for now, the iPhone infrared camera prototype further underlines the possibility that FLIR’s motto of “Infrared Everywhere” may one day be a statement of fact.