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Thermal imaging technology as an iPhone accessory?

Incorporating the FLIR ONE thermal imager — expected to cost about $350 — onto the iPhone we’re already carrying around might make a lot of sense

Everyone has seen thermal imaging videos — usually taken from a police helicopter — where the bad guys think they’re hiding from the cops because they’re in pitch-black darkness. Then, surprise! The fuzz walk right up to them, guided by the eye in the sky, watching from the forward-looking infrared imager mounted on the helicopter.

These imagers have an elevated “coolness factor” because few of us can afford one. A helicopter-mounted FLIR imager starts at about $30,000, and even the cheaper handheld models start at $2,000 or thereabouts. They are just not affordable for most of us.

That may change in the next few months, as FLIR has announced the FLIR ONE case for the iPhone. The FLIR ONE is a wraparound case for the iPhone that incorporates a thermal imager. Output is viewed on the iPhone’s display.

Rapidly Evolving Technology
A few years back, FLIR sent me one of their handheld thermal imagers to evaluate. It was about the size of a big pair of binoculars, and had a single eyepiece.

It was an amazing device. Looking through the eyepiece into my back yard on a moonless night, my black dog stood out like Casper the Friendly Ghost. A cup of coffee on a patio table might as well have had a fire burning in it.

If I placed my hand on a piece of siding for a few seconds, my warm handprint was visible for up to a minute afterward. In a line of parked cars on the street, the one that had just driven up and still had a warm engine stood out starkly from the rest.

I couldn’t help but marvel at how valuable one of these would have been in my patrol days. I worked mainly the graveyard shift, and many a time was searching a building, yard, or field for a bad guy I was pretty sure had been there recently — if he wasn’t still there. My flashlight made it easy for him to locate me, but I usually had to literally stumble over him to find him. Then, of course, the fight was on, and he had the advantage of surprise. More than one of them got away from me.

Thermal imagers have applications other than looking for bad guys in dark places. You can use a thermal imager to spot places in your home that are leaking heat and running up your power bill. When clearing a building where there may be a fire, a quick glance may tell you if there are flames on the other side of the door, or a cold, empty room.

When senior citizens or children wander away from their homes, a thermal imager might help you locate them before they die of exposure. Given our aging population, this will become an increasingly common scenario.

A $350 iPhone Accessory
The FLIR ONE is expected to cost about $350. This isn’t a casual purchase, to be sure, but it’s in line with quality safety equipment such as flashlights and laser sights. Most of us are carrying smartphones these days, and incorporating the thermal imager into a device we already have saves on weight and bulk. The prototype adds about as much bulk to the iPhone as an external battery case, making it about half an inch longer and a few millimeters thicker. The case includes a separate battery that will power the thermal imager circuits for up to two hours without sucking down the iPhone’s internal battery. In fact, the separate battery can be used to recharge the iPhone’s internal battery.

The back of the case adds two cameras. One is the thermal imaging camera. The other is a conventional camera that produces an image that overlays the output from the imager. This is an unusual design, but it supposedly makes it easier to determine what you’re looking at.

FLIR has also announced the availability of a software developer’s kit (SDK) in the near future. People skilled in coding iPhone applications will be able to develop apps that use the FLIR ONE’s capabilities. A free app downloadable from the Apple App Store permits the user to preserve and share images from the thermal camera.

The FLIR ONE is designed for the iPhone 5 and 5s, so you have a great reason to upgrade if you haven’t already. FLIR is working on an Android version, but no word as of yet on which Android phones it will fit. The iPhone version should be here by summer.

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia and Oregon. He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.