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Raytheon's micro thermal chips could be "end of the flashlight"


May 15, 2014

The new chips could make thermal imagers standard issue for soldiers and police officers

The new chips could make thermal imagers standard issue for soldiers and police officers

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Technological advances aren't just about making new devices. Many times it's more a matter of taking an existing device and improving on it. A case in point is Raytheon’s work on a new thermal imaging chip that the company says will find so many applications due to it being so small and cheap, that it may make the humble flashlight obsolete.

Unlike other night vision technologies that work by amplifying tiny traces of visible light or by illuminating scenes with an infrared lamp, Raytheon's new thermal imaging chip detects heat in complete darkness. It is manufactured using “wafer-level packaging,” which Raytheon says is the same process used to make computer chips. Over the past decade, the technology has reduced the imaging chips in size by a factor of six, while the number of parts for a sensor package has reduced from 15 to two.

Wafer-level packaging creates thousands of microscopic windows and vacuum-packaged thermal detectors called microbolometers on the chip’s surface. Each microbolometer is 17 microns wide and a single sensor chip can contain tens of millions of microbolometers with each wafer holding thousands of sensor chips. This simplifies construction and greatly reduces the cost of the thermal sensors. It also makes them much more rugged, so they can hold up to everything from a smartphone in a pocket to battlefield conditions.

Applications for the new chips are "endless," Raytheon engineers say, with uses for everything from smart cars to potholing. The chips make it possible, for example, to issue thermal imagers for every soldier and police officer as standard kit, allowing them to follow targets by the heat of their footprints. In addition, cars could be equipped with sensors that adjust the airbags by being able to tell a child from a bag of groceries based on the heat signature.

"Once it reaches a certain price point, you’ll see it kind of popping up in a lot of different areas," says Adam Kennedy, a lead engineer at Raytheon Vision Systems. "That’s just very, very exciting."

Thermal imaging technology continues to make

Source: Raytheon

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

It won't replace the flashlight for the simple reason that it doesn't distinguish objects by their reflectivity but by their thermal emissivity (in practical terms, by temperature rather than by color). This makes all objects that are at the same temperature look the same (and "objects" like footprints that are at a different temperature stand out). Cool, but way different from a flashlight.

Paul Horwitz

I am not sure how it would make flashlights obsolete but it is way cool. I think it could supplement flashlights at times when flashlights don't illuminate much.


I've been waiting years for thermal imaging prices to come down. I really want to see consumer thermal imaging hit the mass market soon.


I agree with BigWarpGuy, I think the flashlight is safe since it lights up stuff and you look directly at the object with your eyes, rather than through a monitor. And you can look at something from a different angle than the light source, which is sometimes necessary.

However, having thermal imaging cheap and ubiquitous is a real game-changer, and big companies in that sector are in real trouble. Remember slide rules?

Bruce H. Anderson

Could we PLEASE get these into ALL automobiles as OEM and retrofit?! I'm sick and tired of facing blindingly bright headlights/foglights because those drivers can't see the road at night.

It's not enough for those driving 'luxury' vehicles (Beamers, Caddies, etc) to have night vision - we ALL need it. Many's the time I've found carcasses of dead deer in the road or off to the side - with huge blood splatters and, sometimes, compact cars and minivans disabled with caved-in windshields. I've been lucky so-far because I wear yellow lenses which block the UV and blue light wavelengths but THIS technology would allow every driver to spot wildlife in the road well ahead of having to 'panic brake' or hit them.


Great idea but there are times when you need direct vision. This won't stop deer and other road kills; the animals usually come out to fast.

Stuart Wilshaw

BigWarpGuy, instead of flashlights, we'd put on an augmented-reality headset that displays a thermal video.

Joel Detrow

I suppose that this technology could take heat seeking missiles to a whole new level of capability, not to mention their probable use in identifying dummy warheads used by strategic nuclear missiles to confuse anti-ballistic missile systems.

Mel Tisdale

Just keep this cheap tech away from the bad guys!


What's the technology readiness level (TRL) of this research? Anything less than a 6 and it will be a long time before actual devices are produced.


Chill, guys.

Notice that the article enthuses a lot about low costs, but doesn't even hint at the actual price. Not even the price range, and not even a rough comparison with current prices for similar devices.

A marketing ploy by Raytheon, if I ever saw one. Hold on to your flashlights for now. :-)


This Raytheon invention makes thermal imaging practical at lower cost than with technology currently in use. But it's not an entirely new capability. So it does make expensive systems like ballistic missile defense somewhat more affordable, but the bigger impact will be with low end systems like the ones used by ordinary police officers & infantrymen as mentioned in the post. All tech eventually ends up "in the wild". It's just a matter of time.


There are some useful non-military uses for thermal imaging. One of them is improving "self driving" cars to be able have other means of spotting objects near the road: http://www.gizmag.com/go/6044/

Another one is fixing home insulation: http://i.imgur.com/fal8spD.jpg


For reasons already stated, will never replace the flashlight. However, additional yet to be mentioned devices including all manner of intrusion and safety systems such as pool alert devices, intruder alarms, etc. will get better and better with cheaper heat detection.

The Skud

It's not easy to write a "short" piece about something like this, but... Can’t the author understand that people who read gizmag are the same ones who sent away for the x-ray glasses? Tell us about the way cool night vision goggles etc. Air bag technology? Jeez...

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