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Building an Ecosystem

Hank Hogan, Contributing Editor, hank.hogan@photonics.com

Getting a gadget in hand may be only the first step in solving a problem. A further requirement could be a whole supporting ecosystem, including other products with unique capabilities.

A case in point turned up recently in Industrial Photonics’ online forum, where a user going by the handle “werdna” sought help in making a projector. When contacted about the request, project leader Noel Gordon explained that what he wanted for his Albury, New South Wales, Australia-based (and still-being-formed) enterprise wasn’t a run-of-the-mill device that would produce something visible to the naked eye.

“The project is for an LWIR [long-wave infrared] image projector to project moving or still images on a screen for viewing through thermal image cameras and devices such as [Flir’s] First Mate brand used for marine night navigation, search and rescue, etc.,” Gordon said.

The goal is to help train personnel in the operation and use of these devices, which capture images in the 7.5- to 13.5-µm wave band. At those wavelengths, clear imaging in total darkness is possible, and smoke and fog don’t obscure the scene.

But the question then becomes one of interpreting what appears in the viewer. The particular thermal imagers in question are aimed at marine applications; users might have to use them for search and rescue if, for example, a crew member goes overboard at night or during fog. Gordon’s projector would enable users to get an idea of what this and other possible scenarios might look like – before such events actually happen.

Being familiar with equipment and being able to interpret the images produced while actually using a device could be helpful, as this is not intuitive for some sailors, according to Gordon. He also says there could be other applications that would benefit from classroom training with a projector.

To create one, he and his colleagues need technology with specific capabilities. “We’re currently looking for somebody to make us an optical collimator for LWIR wavelengths 7 to 14 µm and a galvo raster generator modified for this wavelength,” Gordon said.

Aluminum-coated surfaces found in digital micromirrors and galvanometer mirrors are highly reflective across the entire spectrum, so they direct infrared light where needed as readily as visible light. But the lenses, light sources and other projector components would need to be specific to the wave band in question.

Industrial challenges

Clearly, applying a technology to solve a problem can be a complicated affair. In this case, thermal IR imaging can improve nighttime or inclement weather search and rescue or other maritime-related tasks, but an even better outcome is possible – if other elements, such as specialized training tools, are in place.

Building such an ecosystem takes time and effort. How this is done depends on several factors, and who does so also varies. In the rapidly changing world of semiconductors, for instance, chip makers will produce a new microprocessor or other device. At the time the new product rolls out, manufacturers will also have available a board reference design, application notes and other parts of the ecosystem, all in an effort to jump-start sales and use of the new chip.

The makers of industrial products have their own version of this. For instance, thermal-imaging device maker Flir offers a range of resources, such as product literature, case studies, application notes and data sheets, as well as sales and technical assistance. As for training, the company offers this at its Infrared Training Center in Santa Barbara, Calif. – more than 7500 miles (12,000 km) from New South Wales, where Gordon is located. Flir also offers security professionals training via a mobile unit. A check of its itinerary reveals, as might be expected, that it isn’t currently scheduled to appear in Australia anytime soon. However, those seeking training in remote locations can take advantage of online webinars.

So far, the projector problem remains unsolved, perhaps because the possible market is not that large, and perhaps because no one is sure whether it can actually be built, Gordon reported. A mechanical engineer, he has some ideas about what’s needed. However, he is not a thermal infrared optics expert and so is still looking for help in constructing this part of the ecosystem. Gordon can be contacted through the Industrial Photonics online forum or at formula.thermal.imaging@gmail.com.

Speaking of building out an ecosystem, an example of this comes from Flir itself. The company is rolling out an iPhone product accessory that will bring thermal infrared imaging to smartphones. Scheduled to begin shipping in mid-2014, the accessory has generated interest and tens of thousands of preregistrations for units, in what was, as Sterne Agee analyst Peter Arment wrote early this summer, “an impressive start given the extremely low marketing awareness amongst consumers.”

Of course, this expansion of both the smartphone and thermal imager ecosystems could lead to new applications and, therefore, a need for yet more solutions. And the ecosystem continues to grow.


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