A virtuous cycle in the uncooled IR sensing market

30th January 2019
Alex Lynn

Reportedly, 2018 could be the year when the uncooled infrared imager and detector market reaches a tipping point with the involvement of big companies. As a consequence, the industry is showing impressive volumes and CAGR. They announced an annual growth of seven percent in value over the 2018-2024 period. 

For microbolometers, numerous commercial applications have driven the imager market growth. These include thermography, surveillance, PVS and firefighting. Most noticeably, shipments exceeded a million units in 2017, mostly due to FLIR’s Lepton core and SEEK Thermal’s success, heading to two million units in 2021.

Yole Développement (Yole) released a dedicated report focused on IR imaging technologies. Titled ‘Uncooled IR Imagers & Detectors’, this technology and market analysis provides market data on key uncooled infrared detectors and imagers, including market metrics and dynamics. It offers key technical insights into future technology trends and challenges.

This report also aims to delive an in in-depth understanding of the IR imaging value chain, infrastructure, and players. In addition, Yole’s survey presents an in-depth analysis of uncooled IR detector and imager commercial and defense applications.

Overall, both IR detector and imager sales growth in total shipments is confirmed in 2017. Yole’s analysts announced 1.3 million for imagers and more than 300 million for detectors. This significant growth is due to the dynamic commercial market segment.

The uncooled IR imager business is still driven by commercial markets, which will continue to expand quickly, with a 15.8% CAGR between 2018 and 2024. These markets will represent 93% of all shipments by 2024. Thermography will have a nine percent shipment volume CAGR during the same period.

“This application is a sure thing for the microbolometer market, with IR imagers used here for industrial and commercial applications including home diagnosis and hot spot identification,” said Eric Mounier, PhD, Fellow Analyst, Technology and Market, MEMS and Photonics at Yole.

Firefighting is an attractive opportunity with 20% shipment volume between 2018 and 2024. There is a very large potential market, with 37 million firefighters worldwide. PVS include portable binoculars, monoculars and sights for rifles. They are used in patrolling borders, law enforcement and increasingly for consumer outdoor use, including mountain sports and hunting.

This market has been a big surprise and a large contributor to the global infrared market, expected to reach 30% annual unit growth between 2018 and 2024. The USA is the largest market by far because of its large hunting and law enforcement markets. Among other applications, smart buildings and robotic vehicles are noteworthy. Driven by the desire for better energy control, smart buildings are a promising application with 75% shipment volume CAGR between 2018 and 2024. However, this is in direct competition with IR detectors and 24GHz radars, which are less expensive.

Behind this significant growth, who are the key players? First, LG Innotek announced that it is promoting its thermal imaging infrared camera module business. This sounds exciting as LG is the leader for visible camera modules and is Apple’s supplier. Then Amazon introduced nine cashierless stores in 2018, which include hundreds of cameras including infrared sensors. 3,000 stores are expected by 2021.

Following the success of the CATS60 smartphone, Caterpillar launched the CATS61 with increased functionality. In two years, it shipped more than 500,000 units of the CATS60.

Besides these companies, traditional uncooled infrared players still continue to be very active in terms of new products and technologies. Leonardo DRS launched its TENUM 640 core, based on a Wafer-Level-Packaged VOx microbolometer with ten by ten micron pixel size. ULIS created a specific product for smart building applications, called ThermEye, and has been selected by Irlynx for smart building projects. FLIR, the market leader, launched many new products including the FLIR One Pro, IntelliRock III and Saros Dome.

Dimitrios Damianos, PhD, Technology and Market Analyst at Yole, stated: “The uncooled infrared landscape has also been shaped by the rapid growth of SEEK Thermal. Having shipped more than 100,000 units in 2017, SEEK Thermal seized a decent share of the 2017 microbolometer market. This new kid on the block markets aggressively, and is trying to address as many infrared applications as possible.”

2017 saw 1.3 million microbolometers shipped in total. The top three players were FLIR, with 66% market share, followed by ULIS, with 13%, and SEEK, with 12%. Infrared detectors are more conservative. Five players continue to share almost 80% of the $252m value market in 2017. Excelitas claims 43%, followed by Nicera, with 17%, Murata, with 11%, Melexis, with seven percent, and Heimann, with four percent.

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