By Dick Fairburn
The TacticaList Contributor
When I saw the pre-release info on a tech web page, I knew I had to see one in action: an infrared thermal camera attachment for a smartphone. Was it just a cool toy or something a street cop could use effectively?
I immediately contacted the company’s media rep and requested one. Two days later I received a SEEK Thermal camera for an Android phone (they also make it for the iPhone 5 series or newer and iPad/iPod touch).
It is very small, weighs only a half-ounce, and it works!
No Instructions Necessary
My old Android phone was getting slow anyway, so I upgraded to the newest Motorola (Moto X second generation). The SEEK unit has no user’s manual. The instructions on the box simply said:
1. Download the app.
2. Plug in the camera.
I’m barely literate on the geek scale — I can’t even name all the Star Trek sequels — but within minutes I felt like I was looking into the screen of Captain Kirk’s Tricorder.
These units are decidedly low resolution, about 32,000 pixels (.032 Megapixels), but the image is useful and amazingly accurate. You can select from either monochrome or several color renditions, and minor differences in temperature are very distinct. The unit has a 36-degree angle of view, about like a normal (50mm) lens on a 35mm camera, and will zoom in modestly.
Beyond simple imagery, the unit will read out the temperature of any spot you select with a crosshair. Variations of the temperature readout include a screen which marks the highest and lowest temps in the scene and another which will only colorize any item above a temperature threshold you choose.
It can literally show you which airline passenger is running a fever as they deplane off the flight from West Africa. You can even call up a split-screen image which shows the thermal image on the right and your daylight camera phone image on the left. Cool!
Not all Android phones will work with the SEEK camera. Any Android running a recent operating system which supports “USB on the Go” (USB OTG) is compatible. However, some phones have physical issues. One brand has the USB port mounted backwards, yielding only thermal selfies without an adapter.
When I tried it on a friend’s new Samsung phone I found I would have had to break off the little Micro USB port door to get it mounted.
Since iPhones are all the same, any series five (or newer) is good to go. After a week of experience with the SEEK, I heartily recommend it, especially considering the modest price. It was not specifically tested for durability but was dropped twice and despite small dings, it still works fine.
There is another smartphone thermal camera on the market from FLIR, the company whose name has become synonymous with the whole breed of infrared devices. Made only for the iPhone 5/5s, I was unable to play with the FLIR ONE system. Rather than plugging into the iPhone’s Lightening connector, the FLIR ONE is like a large protector which snaps over the back of the phone. The FLIR ONE has resolution similar to the SEEK, but the FLIR contains both daylight and thermal cameras, which are blended to produce a sort of outline “edge” to items in the field of view. The FLIR is considerably larger than the SEEK unit and contains its own battery. The SEEK draws its power from the phone. Both units record still or video images.
Frankly, handheld thermal imaging is too new for us to fully fathom the possibilities, but searches in darkness are unquestionably the first to come to mind.
Walking into a blacked-out men’s room, one set of shoes was easily spotted from a low angle under the stalls.
When the test subject raised his hand over the door I could easily count the number of fingers he was showing (only one, of course).
Put one of these devices into the hands of night shift cops and I’m sure they will find many valuable uses.
Having IR images from a helicopter’s perspective are more valuable of course, but most cops don’t work where they can whistle up a chopper at will. Pulling a little camera out of your pocket and snapping it on your phone is a damn fine alternative.