Time for a Touch of Flir

Thermal imaging draws attention from smartphone makers

Five years ago, UK-based Bullitt introduced the first smartphone with a built-in thermal-imaging sensor. The Cat S60 Android-powered rugged device uses the Cat branding that Bullitt licenses from construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar. This brand name reflects the robust and industrial design of Bullitt’s Cat-branded phones. These devices meet military standards and have numerous other design characteristics underlining their suitability for rugged use.

Incorporating thermal imaging into a smartphone drew attention to Bullitt and the Cat S60, as there are some truly practical applications for the feature. Tradespeople such as builders, electricians and plumbers can use the phone’s camera to find leaks and hot spots. There are also several consumer uses for thermal imaging. The feature allows homeowners to detect heat radiation around windows and it can also be used to find errant pets in the dark, for example.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic has greatly expanded the need to detect elevated body temperature among a crowd, increasing the market for thermal imaging devices. Suddenly just about every store, restaurant, gym and office has a need to monitor people for signs of higher-than-normal skin temperature. Bullitt recognized this opportunity and has been promoting how its products can be used to detect people with an elevated temperature. Like other makers of consumer electronics with health features, Bullitt has had to tread a fine line and make it clear that it doesn’t offer medical-grade thermal detection.

Flir is the company that makes the thermal imaging components for Bullitt’s Cat S60 device, the follow-up Cat S61 and the BV9800 Pro from rival rugged smartphone maker Blackview. Flir is already a well-established supplier of thermal imaging equipment for use in law enforcement, defence and security, among other industry sectors, and also sells thermal imaging accessories that clip onto smartphones. Interest in the company’s products has spiked during the past few months, and we expect this includes attention from smartphone makers seeing an opportunity to fill a new need among enterprise customers.

We note that thermal imaging adds a significant amount to the bill of materials of a device, so it won’t be a mainstream smartphone feature. The components also add to the size and weight of the phone, which means there’s a trade-off in design and portability. However, thanks to their rugged design, the Cat S60 and S61 are sturdy devices that, as Bullitt highlights, can be washed with “soaps, sanitisers, chemicals, bleach and alcohol”. The company recommends lathering up the phone with a sponge in warm soapy water. It’s an interesting suggestion to hear from a maker of consumer electronics.

The coronavirus pandemic has produced new opportunities for Flir and Bullitt; crises like this change people’s needs. It’s good to see such companies pursuing these opportunities at a time when doing business is harder than ever.