FLIR One Thermal Camera – First Impressions

by Ben N on January 7, 2015

Today, my FLIR One camera arrived in the mail.

I excitedly tore open the package, but then I slowed down to make sure to take some photos so you all could get my first impressions of this thermal camera designed to work with an Apple iPhone 5 camera.

In the box is the FLIR One camera, the phone cover that aligns with the FLIR camera, a USB charging cable, and a quick-start guide. Missing is a wall power adapter. It looks like FLIR assumes that everyone has a spare USB port or wall adapter. Of course they are right, so I just used my iPhone wall adapter to charge the FLIR camera.

The camera itself is the same width as the iPhone, but it’s taller, so it adds to the total length when installed. To start with, the user inserts their iPhone 5 into a “slimline” phone cover that is included. The phone then “docks” with the thermal camera, using the Thunderbolt port on the bottom of the phone. The entire device fits nicely in the hand, but feels bulky compared to just the phone itself if you were to put it in your pocket.

I had already downloaded the FLIR One app, so I just opened it. To turn the camera on, the user slides a switch on the front, which is in easy reach of the first finger of the hand holding the phone. Right away, I got a message that a new firmware was available, which including an upgrade that allowed the FLIR charger to also charge the iPhone. This seems like a nice update, as one of the complaints I had heard so far was that you had to charge the Flir and the phone separately.

Using the FLIR One is pretty straight-forward – it’s a camera, it just happens to be one that sees heat instead of light. I immediately started pointing the thermal-camera-phone around my house. It’s really impressive to be able to SEE the heat patterns. Now to be specific here, the camera shows DIFFERENCES in heat. (It does also have a cross-hairs with thermometer if you want to know absolute temperature of a specific point.)

For example, the camera shows hot things as red and cool things as blue, but it IS relative. On a regular video camera, you are probably familiar with auto-iris or auto-exposure. The camera controls the settings so that if you point the camera at something bright, it “stops-down” the lens so that the image is properly exposed. Other background objects will be darker. If you point a camera into a darker area, the lens “opens-up” to let more light in so that the image isn’t too dark. Likewise, the FLIR shows relative heat, but it only has a certain dynamic range. If you point the camera at something very hot, you won’t have as much sensitivity in the same image of something cooler.

I found that pointing the camera at my heat duct (with my furnace running) made everything else seem cool by comparison. However, if I framed out the duct from my image the camera was sensitive enough for me to see the difference between my drywall and where the wall studs were! It is thermal X-Ray vision! (Please note. It’s January as I write this, and about 0 degrees F outside, so there’s quite a large temperature differential between the indoors and outdoors!)

I played around with the camera and took some photos of my bathroom sink running hot water, my utility room with the furnace and water heater, and the areas around my front and back door. It’s VERY interesting to have real-time feedback looking at the screen and moving the camera.

The FLIR One actually has TWO cameras. One is a regular old visible light camera. The other is the thermal sensor, which frankly, is NOT very hight resolution. The FLIR combines the two images and creates a high-resolution “edge” image from the visual spectrum and overlays the lower-res, but VERY INTERESTING, thermal image over it. This creates an image where you can tell what you are looking at AND get the thermal information. One downside is that there is a bit of a parallax effect. Because the two cameras are slightly apart, they are tuned to a point about three feet away. If you are a distance other than that, the images don’t align perfectly. It’s not a big deal, you still know what you are looking at – it’s pretty amazing, but not yet perfect, technology.

The main things I was looking at right away were electronics, HVAC, and my house structure and insulation. It’s fun to see the heat of electronics, also noting that much of that is “vampire loads”. My Blueray player was surprisingly warm. In my utility room, I had a great view of my forced air furnace. Even without labels on the pipes, it would be very easy to see which was combustion air in from outdoors, and which was hot exhaust going out. (And maybe enough motivation for me to insulate that cold air intake!)

House structure was especially interesting. As long as I didn’t have a heat duct in the shot, the camera was sensitive enough for me to see the wall studs! Looking into a corner on an interior wall and an exterior wall, it’s not hard to guess which is which. The wood floor by both the front and back doors is noticeably cold in the winter, but it’s pretty slick to be able to visualize it! Possible the worst offender was looking at my circuit breaker box. Most people in my area have the breaker box in the basement. My house only has a crawl-space, so the breaker box is in the wall right by the back door. Unfortunately, this is an exterior wall, and in the direction of prevailing winds to boot! The wall isn’t that much thicker than the breaker box, meaning there is almost NO insulation right there. Of course, the box itself is steel, and radiates cold straight into the house. Hmmm. I might need to design some sort of attractive and easy to remove insulation that can go right over the breaker box.

Overall, the FLIR One camera is pretty darn cool! You do need to have an iPhone 5 or 5s to use it. I already happened to have one, so no loss there. I’ll just have to never upgrade my phone….. I don’t care for the fact that the FLIR uses sort of a custom case on the iPhone. I rather like having my tough-as-nails case on my phone for all those times that I drop it. Popping the phone in and out of a different protective case is a bit of a pain, but for me, it’s still cheap insurance compared to breaking the phone and buying a new one.

The FLIR also shoots video, which I haven’t even shot yet. First I’ll give the thing a full charge, and make sure I’m up on the latest version of the app and firmware. The software also adds a watermark to the upper-left of every image. I know, it’s good for marketing, but maybe a future version of the app will allow the user to turn that off. Imagine how annoyed GoPro camera users would be if every video was watermarked “GoPro” in the corner!

That’s it for now! If you have any great ideas for using a thermal camera, let me know and I’ll try it out!


PS: No, I haven’t tried the SEEK thermal camera for Android yet. I don’t have an Android device, but if you do and get a SEEK, let me know how you like it!

PPS: I did notice that the images saved out from the camera aren’t that big. They are JPEG file format at 640 x 480 pixels. Also, the field of view on the FLIR is not as wide angle as the iPhone’s camera. You have to get a little further away from your subject.

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Ben's Flir One Thermal Camera - EcoRenovator
January 7, 2015 at 5:29 pm

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