Plant & Works Engineering
Twenty five years in thermal imaging
Published:  08 July, 2011

What a difference 25 years has made to thermal imaging and Flir Systems’ Kevin Ellis has witnessed it every step of the way.  PWE takes a looks back over his 25 career to see how things have changed.


Now distribution area manager for the North of England, Scotland and Ireland, Ellis has just celebrated his quarter century in the business, a time span that has seen both the technology and its scope of application change beyond all recognition.

Having completed his apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer with Dunlop, the 23-year old Ellis was keen to branch out into sales and achieved this ambition by making the move to engineering polymer specialist, Polypenco.  Eleven years later he sought another fresh challenge and took his first step into the world of infrared.

AGEMA is credited with the introduction of the world’s first commercial thermal imaging camera and became part of Flir Systems in 1997.  In the mid-eighties the company, based in Leighton Buzzard, was seeking to expand its sales force and on 1st April 1986 Ellis was appointed as a sales engineer for the North of England.  

“At the time the AGEMA range of imagers was limited to maybe seven models cooled by liquid nitrogen.  So, to say the least, setting up for a demo was quite a challenge”, he explained. “All were trolley mounted to accommodate the imager and the liquid nitrogen flask. The accompanying computer was the size of a house so a demo at a steel plant or in a high rise building was always ‘interesting’!”

He added:  “These models provided no direct temperature measurements either.  All readings were put through hand calculators to acquire temperature values.  And data storage consisted of snapping a Polaroid of the video display.”

Surprisingly the markets Ellis served then differ little to those his distributors address now.  But of course in those early days of commercial thermal imaging the technology was solely restricted to high-end applications.  It was extremely expensive, cumbersome and a very much more complex method than it is today.

By the mid-90s, infrared cameras such as the AGEMA 470 had slimmed down to a mere 8kg, boasted a resolution of 10,000 pixels and its list price was around the 50,000 US dollars mark, nearly £30,500 in today’s money.  Now, a Flir i7 produces 14,000 pixels, weighs under 340g – including the battery – and costs £1776+VAT.  And in common with other electronic advancements with their improved ergonomics, friendlier user interfaces, smaller components and widespread usage, thermal imaging cameras have now become indispensible instruments for an expanding variety of trades.

Building inspection and energy management have more recently discovered the merits of thermal imaging. Ellis continued: “These have become huge commercial markets for the technology in the last 5 – 10 years and they are great examples of how the un-cooled technology has developed.”  Surprisingly however thermal imaging in these sectors can trace its roots back to the oil crisis of the early 1970s.

The Swedish Government took action and provided immediate support and funding for the development of the first real-time radiometric imagers to help measure and quantify energy waste.  The new cameras were developed by Sweden’s AGA/Bofors – now Flir.

Later that decade, Flir entered the energy audit arena and soon after began developing hand held and laboratory systems for a variety of commercial and industry uses.  It was however well in to the 1980s before infrared focal plane array (IRFPA) imagers were perfected, which improved sensitivity and resolution and ultimately replaced mechanical scanning. 

“By the late-90s models emerged that needed no cooling and the commercial marketplace became dominated by ported, rugged, un-cooled, point and shoot cameras for both qualitative and quantitative applications”, Ellis added.

He continued: “The greatest exponent of the technology is still the predictive maintenance community.  Electricians use it to locate problems quickly, make timely repairs, prevent unscheduled shutdowns and improve site safety.  Mechanics search for overheated bearings, linkages and other components that could interrupt operation. 

Utility workers can scan large areas and hundreds of connections efficiently to prevent unexpected outages and lost revenue. And thanks to advances in the technology they can all do this work quicker, more efficiently and more safely than ever before.”


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