Field Report: FLIR ONE

September 20, 2014


Early in 2014, FLIR – maker of many thermal imaging products – announced they were taking pre-orders for the FLIR ONE add-on camera for the iPhone. Many engineers, your author included, “geeked out” over the ability to have a thermal camera for just a few hundred bucks, a first in this arena. The actual units went on sale in August, and they''re definitely more for consumers than professionals. Even so, they are useful within certain limitations.

THE BASICS

The camera is about the same size/thickness as an iPhone itself. There''s a gap in the case to let the iPhone''s own flash shine. The extra weight is relatively negligible (3.9 oz) and the camera has its own built-in rechargeable battery (via an included micro-USB cable, not a lightning connector, oddly enough) that''s rated for two hours, although I found judicious use could extend that noticeably.

It comes with a nice, slim hardshell case that snaps onto your iPhone. It''s meant to stay on all the time while the camera easily snaps on/off. I like the concept and the execution is well-done, but if you don''t like the case it''s pretty tough to pry it off.

The “back” of the camera has two lenses: one for visual (MSX/Multi-Spectral Dynamics) and one for thermal. Plus a sliding switch that doubles as a lens cover and “tuning” control.

Once you charge up the camera and lock it in place, download the free FLIR ONE app from the Apple Store and open it. After several seconds of loading, it prompts you to press and hold the “tuning” lever for a few seconds.

A battery charger appears as a hot spot relative to the surroundings

That''s it! You''re now seeing heat just like the Predator from the classic Schwarzenegger flick, except the MSX seamlessly blends a subtle “outline” image that helps greatly to make sense of what you''re seeing. There''s also an available crosshairs with a pinpoint numeric temp reading. Pretty cool, eh? And it even seamlessly integrates with your iPhone''s photo albums for easy editing or sharing.

THE LIMITATIONS

Unfortunately, it only takes a few minutes before the limitations become glaring.

The camera prompts you to “tune” it every few minutes, even every few seconds, depending on how much the temperature it “sees” is changing. Fortunately it''s a simple and intuitive process.

The bigger problem is the scale. The camera provides several different “viewing modes” with different ways of using color to represent thermal gradients. But neither the gradient nor the centerpoint can be fixed; it''s always shifting depending on the hot/cold extremes the camera is currently “seeing”. What looks like a major difference might only be four or five degrees. And what''s red might be 120F or 50F, and changes every second. For something that seems like a simple software fix, this was very disappointing.

The resolution is understandably very low, about 80x60 for the thermal camera. Range is also limited; it can technically see for miles (it could tell the difference between clouds and clear sky, even at night) but effectively it''s more like 10 to 15 feet. The camera won''t “see” below 32F, either.

I don''t begrudge a $350 thermal camera these issues, but if you need better specs you''ll need to spend more.

The camera puts a FLIR watermark on all videos and pictures. While minor, it''s really tacky that you can''t turn that off.

Worst of all, the FLIR ONE ONLY works with an iPhone 5 or 5S. $350 for a device on Apple''s 18-month “planned obsolescence” timeline? Ouch.

BUT IT''S NOT ALL BAD!

Hot and cool spots in a transmitter site are easily visible

After using it at my 10 kW AM transmitter building, I found things that were warm showed up as warm, cool things cool. No surprises there…which I guess is good for my facility! I can see how it could quickly identify problems that might otherwise be hard to detect, like waste heat from electrical problems.

And despite the problems, it helps to remember that thermal cameras usually start at $1000 and easily breach $10,000. The FLIR ONE is an actual, working thermal camera for just $350.

However, if you had to buy the iPhone 5 separately, you''d quickly get into price ranges where the FLIR ONE is not worth it. On the other hand, if you already have an iPhone 5 or 5S, and you have a “casual” or even “prosumer” need for a thermal camera? The FLIR One can work for you. And hey, it does look cool!

Performance At A Glance Points

 

  • • Cheap in comparison to other thermal cameras, but expensive for an iPhone add-on.
  • • Clearly a consumer, not professional, device.
  • • Limited to iPhone 5/5S; no upgrade path.
  • • Poor resolution/range. Variable-only color scale/reference temp.
  • • Lightweight, small form factor.
  • • Good independent battery life; won''t drain your iPhone''s battery.
  • • Excellent integration with iOS operations.

 


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