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  • Uncooled IR cameras and detectors: Costing less, scaling up

Photonics Spectra
Nov 2010
Caren B. Les,

LYON, France – Prices of uncooled IR detectors and cameras are falling, thanks to numerous technological and business developments. Driven by this cost reduction, the market volume for thermography and IR vision will triple by 2015, according to Yole Développement.

The volume of uncooled IR cameras sold is expected to rise to more than 700,000 units in 2015, up from 200,000 in 2010, with an annual compound growth rate of 23 percent, Yole reported. The company estimates that revenue growth will be about 9 percent as market prices for the cameras decrease.

Thermography and vision enhancement applications are the main growth markets for uncooled IR cameras, Yole noted. The company predicts that thermography sales will double by 2015 – reaching about $950 million in revenues – for applications in building maintenance and, especially, in building inspection, segments that are being propelled by energy savings policies worldwide.

The vision enhancement market will triple by 2015, corresponding to a $2.4 billion market, and will be driven mainly by the surveillance CCTV and the automotive markets, according to Yole. Several big development projects are pending, aimed at reducing the cost of the detector so that it can be used in safety systems for pedestrian detection.

Yole published an analytic report in June 2010 titled Uncooled IR Cameras & Detectors for Thermography and Vision. In September, it said that its market projections remained valid. The report covers the long-wave infrared uncooled camera and detector markets, which are expected to have high growth applications in commercial business. An infrared thermal camera converts IR into a visible image and incorporates modules that include detectors, optics and electronics. One of the most costly components of the camera is the detector.

“Microbolometers, which are uncooled thermal sensors, account for 95 percent of the uncooled IR detector technology market,” Yole said. They are evolving at the IR optics level, in the areas of polyethylene window and wafer-level optics; at the packaging level, wafer- and even pixel-level packaging will reduce costs by at least 20 percent, the company said.

At the pixel level, smaller pixel size (17 µm) will allow for smaller detectors, and new designs and materials (other than vanadium oxide and amorphous silicon) are in development. At the readout integrated circuit integration level, 3-D integration and wafer-bonding techniques will allow the production of microbolometers in standard microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) or CMOS foundries. Also, new functions integrated by software, such as temperature compensation and one-point temperature measurement, are in development, Yole said.

Minalogic, a global competitive cluster based in Grenoble, has a new project, Phileas, or μPHI. Its aim is to find pixel-level packaging solutions to adapt micro-bolometer technology for large-volume markets, such as automotives, according to Yole. Its objective is to reduce cost by developing pixel- and wafer-level packaging to achieve higher performance, low-cost integrated signal processing, and vision enhancement applications. The cluster is geared for innovation in intelligent miniaturized products and solutions for industry.

Yole said that the European-based Infrared Imaging Components for Use in Automotive Safety Applications project aims at leveraging wafer-level optics development to enable a MEMS manufacturing strategy for integrating bolometers and optics. It hopes to develop IR adapting lenses suitable for integration into MEMS processes.

In terms of materials, the company said that an amorphous silicon material and new silicon-based materials for micro-bolometers are likely to gain acceptance because of their cost benefits and ease of manufacturability, challenging the traditional use of vanadium oxide for the devices.

Price reduction of about 58 percent between 2010 and 2015 is predicted for small-format – typically 160 x 120 pixels – detectors/microbolometers.

Yole predicts that the US company FLIR, a current leader in the uncooled IR camera industry, will be challenged by competitors at both the camera and detector levels. New detector suppliers will arrive on the market from the MEMS and semiconductor industries, the company said. “European MEMS players are serious threats versus established US companies such as FLIR and Fluke.”

The photo on the left was taken from a regular network camera in a smoke-filled and dark hallway. The photo on the right is the same scene taken with a thermal network camera. Courtesy of Axis Communications.

Among the companies mentioned in the report is Axis Communications Inc., a supplier of network surveillance cameras based in Lund, Sweden. Fredrik Nilsson, general manager at Axis, said that one of the goals of the company is to deliver a wide range of thermal network cameras that address a variety of applications and price points for the commercial security and surveillance market. He noted that recent product launches in the Axis Q19 Thermal Network Camera series, which incorporates uncooled microbolometer technology, are suitable for 24/7 area and perimeter surveillance.

“Historically, the general production of thermal cameras for the security and surveillance markets has been very much dominated by players that focus on delivering specific technology for government agencies and military organizations,” Nilsson said. “However, in addition to the public sector, we’re seeing customers in a variety of commercial industries demand advanced thermal technology to better protect property and people.

“Given this, we feel that the market will become increasingly driven by the need and adoption of a variety of applications, such as different detection ranges and fields of view, as well as volumes and price points that will meet their needs.”

A material used to jacket fiber optic cables. It is chemical- and moisture-resistant, but not fire-resistant.
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