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FLIR Commercial Vision Systems Sees Bright Future in Infrared Technology

Goleta manufacturer predicts it won't be long before thermal imaging comes standard in cameras, cell phones and other devices

It’s only a matter of time until thermal imaging cameras become a standard smartphone accessory, according to Bill Terre of Goleta-based FLIR Commercial Vision Systems.

Terre compared infrared technology to a global positioning system. He said that whether architects are designing a LEED-certified building, campers are trying to find their way back to the site, or midnight drivers are navigating their way through a windy road, the applications are vast and the adoption is just beginning.

“GPS, like this technology, was invented by the military 30 years ago,” Terre said. “Systems were really expensive, they were large — old GPS systems took three guys, two with backpacks and one guy with a tripod. But look at it today. You could buy a GPS for your dog, for God’s sake. You got one in your car, two in your phone, and we think we’re on a similar curve. People’s lives are improved by being able to see at night, by improved traffic intersections or improved building safety.”

Terre is FLIR’s vice president and general manager. The company is one of the largest manufacturers of infrared sensors in the world and has a $2.95 billion market cap.

After working at Hughes Aircraft, which is now Boeing, Terre joined Jim Knight’s team at Indigo Systems Corp. In 1981, Knight was one of the founders of Amber Engineering Inc., which specialized in integrated circuit design for infrared cameras, and was acquired by Raytheon in 1992. It grew to more than 200 employees after Knight and two others started the operation out of his garage, he said. Amber helped build the cameras for the Clementine space mission that mapped the moon’s surface.

Knight and three partners subsequently started Indigo Systems in 1996, and FLIR acquired the rapidly expanding firm in 2004. Indigo focused on commercial infrared products for automotive applications and firefighting, Knight said.

“Raytheon wanted infrared sensors for satellites in military platforms,” he said. “But then Indigo started and the price of cameras continued to come down largely through the innovation and thrust of Indigo finding ways to make super sensors and bring more of that very sophisticated processing into the manufacturing realm.”

Infrared sensors see heat and convert it into visible signals. FLIR’s Goleta headquarters, which sells its products to the commercial, industrial and defense markets, generated more than $300 million in revenue last year and is the “heart of sensor manufacturing,” Knight said. FLIR took a very sensitive, tedious and hands-on processing technique and refined the process; it was the first company to put the “uncooled” infrared cameras into a commercial foundry, he said.

An employee of FLIR Commercial Vision Systems assembles a thermal imaging camera used in the automotive industry. (Alex Kacik / Noozhawk photo)
An employee of FLIR Commercial Vision Systems assembles a thermal imaging camera used in the automotive industry. (Alex Kacik / Noozhawk photo)

Some of the fastest-growing applications include building inspection, preventive machinery maintenance, hidden and visible security systems, and night vision.

For instance, most factories have machines with turbine bearings that wear over time and create friction and heat, Terre said. Thermal imaging cameras can prevent complete machine failures.

“GPS answers the question, ‘Where am I?’” he said. “Thermal imaging answers the question, ‘What’s out there?’ It also can be used for the intelligent application of heating and cooling.”

The company is spread out among four buildings scattered throughout Goleta but purchased two buildings in 2010 in the Cabrillo Business Park. DuPont leases the 120,000-square-foot research and development building and the 50,000-square-foot office building at 6769 and 6775 Hollister Ave., respectively, and FLIR will move in 2014. Terre said FLIR’s purchase from Sares-Regis Group will help the company expand its local operations and bring all of its employees under one roof.

“Goleta is this Petri dish of resources, and it has an open and engaging City Council that is progressive toward business now, which is a change to the early City Council we had,” he said. “UCSB has a big influence in spinning off new ideas and technology and assisting startups that want to stay close to the university. And the high-tech corridor is already out there.”

While Goleta’s tech industry continues to grow, infrared technology isn’t widely adopted partially because of its cost. One of the most basic thermal imaging cameras runs about $2,000. But, according to Knight, they could drop to about $100 in five years.

“Someday they’ll be in your cell and everyone will have a thermal imager of some kind,” Terre said. “Absolutely. No doubt in my mind. So it’s exciting to be at the beginning of the whole thing.”

Noozhawk business writer Alex Kacik can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @NoozhawkBiz, @noozhawk and @NoozhawkNews. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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