Gerrard Cowan
By Gerrard Cowan

Gerrard Cowan is a freelance journalist who specializes in finance and defense. Follow him on Twitter @gerrardcowan

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FLIR may adapt its sensors for air taxis

FLIR Systems has held early discussions with air taxi manufacturers on the potential for its thermal camera and other sensors in the space, the company told evtol.com.

FLIR autonomous car with Boson sensors
FLIR’s automotive development kit incorporates a number of the company’s long-wave infrared sensors. With some modification, they could also be used in air taxis, the company says. FLIR Photo

Mike Walters, vice president – micro-camera product management at the company, who is heavily involved in its autonomy work, said that a number of providers in the rapidly growing domain had expressed an interest in FLIR’s products, though he could not provide further details at this stage. 

The company views its long-wave infrared (LWIR) cameras as holding potential for eVTOL platforms, Walters said, notably its compact Boson uncooled thermal sensor. FLIR has held discussions with a number of autonomous systems developers on potential applications for Boson in their areas, he said, and has “come across a couple of folks in the air taxi space as part of that.”

According to Walters, a thermal camera like Boson would be particularly useful for air taxis because of its obvious applications at night in providing situational awareness. Additionally, because such cameras are guided by heat, rather than light, they cannot be blinded by the setting or rising sun, and perform well in poor weather conditions like fog. 

“These are the reasons why thermal cameras are often used in aircraft today, and we think it will extend to the air taxi space,” Walters explained. 

Walters said there is also potential for air taxis to use LWIR sensors as a “stereo pair.” This would enable users to both see at night and measure distance, allowing them to ascertain the distance to the ground or to other objects they wish to avoid. 

FLIR Tau 2 camera on DJI Zenmuse XT2
FLIR’s thermal cameras have been installed on a number of different vehicle types. The DJI Zenmuse XT2 camera shown here incorporates the Tau 2 camera core. FLIR Photo

Walters highlighted a number of challenges related to adapting FLIR’s thermal LWIR sensors for the eVTOL space. For example, the platforms travel much faster than autonomous cars, which are another focus for the company. This means they need to be able to see farther at any one time, perhaps up to one kilometer. This would require a lens with a narrower field of view, so air taxis would have to incorporate multiple cameras to ensure there were no gaps in the area being assessed.

Additionally, FLIR would have to increase the frame rate of its cameras. Currently they operate at 60 frames per second, but this would need to increase as the platform is traveling faster.

Walters said the company is confident of being able to overcome both these challenges, and hopes to leverage its experience both in the military domain and in autonomous driving as it expands into eVTOLs. FLIR Systems has acquired a number of companies in the unmanned space in recent years, including Endeavor Robotics, Aeryon Labs, and Prox Dynamics, and will work to adapt these companies’ products — from nano-unmanned aircraft systems to unmanned ground vehicles — for the air taxi domain and other eVTOL applications.

“We have a lot of experience with cameras and sensors, and I think all of that will apply to the air taxi space,” he said.

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