Teardown of a (Relatively) Cheap Thermal Camera

The cost of tools and test equipment has largely been on the downward trend for years, making it now more affordable than ever to get into the hacking and making scene. This is particularly visible with something like the venerable oscilloscope: a piece of equipment that was near unobtainium for the home hacker a decade ago, you can now get digital pocket scope for as little as $20 USD. But there are still pieces of gear which haven’t quite hit the sort of prices we’d like to see.

A perfect example are thermal imaging cameras. The cheap ones are usually so low resolution they might as well just be thermometers, but the higher resolution ones can cost thousands. [Rob Scott] recently wrote in to tell us about a very promising middle ground, the HTI HT-A1. But he didn’t just point it out to us, he also tore it down and laid its internal’s bare for our entertainment. Now that’s our kind of introduction.

[Rob] walks us through the disassembly of the device, which is made unnecessarily difficult due to the fact that half the screws are hidden under a glued on screen bezel. That means a heat gun, a thin tool, and patience are in order if you want to get inside the device. It’s bad enough they use these kinds of construction techniques on modern smartphones, but at least they’re so thin that we can understand the reasoning. Why this chunky thing needs to resort to such measures is beyond us.

Eventually he cracks the HT-A1 open and is greeted with a single double-sided PCB. The top side is pretty much bare except for the buttons and the LCD display, and the flip side is largely just a breakout for a quad-core Allwinner A33 daughterboard. [Rob] theorizes this is to keep costs down by allowing reuse of the modular A33 board on other devices. Given the A33’s use in so many cheap tablets, it’s also possible HTI simply purchased these daughterboards as a drop-in component and designed their own board around it.

There’s not much else inside the HT-A1 beyond the rechargeable battery pack and thermal camera, both attached to the device’s rear panel. [Rob] noticed that the date on the thermal camera PCB is a full two years older than the date on the main PCB, leading one to wonder if HTI might have gotten a good deal on a bunch of these slightly outdated sensors and spun up a whole device around them.

The HT-A1 is high enough resolution that you can actually pick out individual components on a PCB, and at $400 USD is approaching a reasonable price point for the individual hacker. Which is not to say it’s cheap, but at least you get a useful tool for your money. We wouldn’t suggest you buy this device on a whim, but if you do a lot of diagnostic work, it might pay for itself after a couple repairs.

If that’s still a little too rich for your blood, we’ve covered a handful of DIY options which might better fit your budget.

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Hot Camera Contest: Build A Battery Powered Thermal Camera

Here’s a challenge for all you hardware hackers out there. Peter Jansen has opened up the Hot Camera Contest on Hackaday.io to use a thermal imaging camera in a battery-powered project.

The challenge here is simple. Use a Flir Lepton thermal imaging camera module in a battery-powered configuration. There’s a catch, though: this is a project to use the Lepton in radiometric mode, where the camera spits out an actual temperature value for each pixel. Yes, this is a documented feature in the Flir Lepton module, but so far very few people are using it, and no one has done it with a small, battery-powered device.

The rules for this challenge are to use the Flir Lepton 2.5 in radiometric mode using either the Raspberry Pi Zero W or ESP32. Any software in this challenge must spit out absolute temperature values in a text format, and there must be a demonstration of putting the Flir Lepton into low-power mode. There are two challenges here, one for the Raspi and one for the ESP32; and winner will be named for each.

Getting More from a Fascinating Sensor

The Flir Lepton is a tiny little thermal camera that’s been available to the Maker community for some time now, first through GroupGets and now through Sparkfun. For a pair of Benjamins, the specs are very impressive: the Lepton has a resolution of 60×80 pixels and everything is can be read over an SPI port. The Lepton gives any project thermal imaging, and the PureThermal board turns the Lepton into a USB device.

Peter Jansen is the creator of the Open Source Science Tricorder (yes, it’s a tricorder) which took Fourth Prize in the 2014 Hackaday Prize. You can understand how he became interested in portable, and we’re sure whatever project he has in mind for this battery-powered Flir will be awesome.

This really is a great example of what the Hackaday.io community is capable of. The goal here is to create useful Open Source drivers for some very interesting hardware, and there’s some prizes to sweeten the pot. Peter has a $125 Sparkfun gift card on offer for each of the two winners. And the challenge of solving a tricky problem and making designs easier for others is a powerful motivator. Who doesn’t like a challenge?

Best Product Entry: Pocket Thermal Camera

One of the entries in the Hackaday Prize Best Product competition is [x-labz]’s pocket thermal imager. It’s more than a prototype, it’s a design conceived to get out into the world and be used by many. Best Product entries are open until July 24th, and with a $30,000 cash prize on the line let’s take a look at some of the things that elevate a project to product status.

Thanks to recent advances in the state of thermal image sensors, a tool that gives you Predator vision is almost a necessity on the modern workbench. The pocket thermal imager will find drafts in your house during winter, will tell you how to cook a steak, figure out what part is shorting out in your latest electronics project, and will tell you how terrible the heated bed is on your 3D printer.

[x-labz]’s thermal camera is based around the FLIR Lepton image sensor, an 80×60 pixel thermal imaging sensor that’s good enough for most uses. This camera is soldered onto a PCB sandwich containing an Atmel SAMD21 microcontroller, full-color OLED display, SD card, and a battery management system.

What we’ve mentioned so far isn’t out of the ordinary for any other entry in the Hackaday Prize. Building something for the Best Product competition is different, though: a lot of thought has to go into the manufacturability and the fit and finish of this device. So far, everything’s looking great for [x-labz]’s camera. There’s a 3D printed case that looks like it could be easily translated into an injection-moldable shell and at least some of the parts of the user interface are unbelievably satisfying. We’re looking forward to seeing the full Bill of Materials and a business plan (a new requirement this year). That’s an area where many hardware designers lack experience; being able to study the examples from Best Product entries will be a welcomed resource.

There’s a world of difference between building a project and building a product, and the entire goal of the Best Product portion of the Hackaday Prize is to reward those people who go the extra mile as aspiring entrepreneurs and show us how that’s done. $50k in cash prizes are set aside for Best Product; $30,000 for the winner as we mentioned before, but there is also $1000 for each of the twenty entries that make it to the finals in this category in addition to some much deserved notoriety from Hackaday’s community of hardware aficionados and early adopters.

Hackaday Prize Entry: Raspberry Pi Thermal Imaging

High up on the list of desirable technologies that are edging into the realm of the affordable for the experimenter is the thermal camera. Once the exclusive preserve of those with huge budgets, over the last few years we’ve seen the emergence of cameras that are more affordable, and most recently a selection of thermal camera modules that are definitely within the experimenter’s range. They may not yet have high resolution, but they are a huge improvement on nothing, and they are starting to appear in projects featured on sites like this one.

One such device is the Melexis MLX90621, a 16×4 pixel thermal sensor array in a TO39 can with an I2C interface. It’s hardly an impulse purchase in single quantities and nor is it necessarily the cheapest module available, but its price is low enough for [Alpha Charlie] to experiment with interfacing it to a Raspberry Pi for adding a thermal camera overlay to the pictures from its visible light camera.

The wiring for the module is simplicity itself, and he’s created a couple of pieces of software for it that are available on his GitHub repository. mlxd is a driver daemon for the module, and mixview.py is a Python graphical overlay script that places the thermal array output over the camera output. A run-through of the device and its results can be seen in the video below the break.

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An Affordable Panasonic Grid-EYE Thermal Imaging Camera

Thermal imaging cameras are objects of desire for hackers and makers everywhere, but sadly for us they can be rather expensive. When your sensor costs more than a laptop it puts a brake on hacking.

Thankfully help is at hand, in the form of an affordable evaluation board for the Panasonic Grid-EYE thermal imaging camera sensor. This sensor has sparked the interest of the Hackaday community before, featuring in a project that made the 2014 Hackaday Prize semifinals, but has proved extremely difficult to obtain.

All that has now changed though with this board. It features the Grid-EYE sensor itself, an Atmel ATSAM-D21G18A microcontroller, and onboard Bluetooth, but has an interesting feature that, as well as being a standalone device, can be used as an Arduino shield. A full range of APIs are provided, and the code is BSD licensed.

This module is not the highest-spec thermal imaging camera on the market by any means, after all it has a resolution of only 64 pixels in an 8×8 grid. But its affordability and easy availability should trigger a fresh crop of thermal camera projects in our community, and we applaud that.

Thermal camera projects have featured quite a few times here on Hackaday. Some have been based on the FLIR Lepton module, like this one that combines its image with a 640×480 visible camera and another that claims to be one of the smallest thermal cameras, while others have harnessed raw ingenuity to create a thermal camera without a sensor array. This pan-and tilt design for example, or this ingenious use of light painting. Please, keep them coming!

[via oomlout]

THP Hacker Bio: AKA

Thermal imaging cameras are the new hotness when it comes building DIY tools that are much less expensive than their commercial counterparts. [Mike Harrison] built a very high-resolution version from Flir’s Lepton module, but an IR temperature sensor and a servo can also create a decent image. [AKA] played around with some of these thermal imaging modules, but found them a little hard to interface. Panasonic’s Grid-EYE module, however is reasonably cheap as far as thermal imaging devices go, and can be read over an I2C bus.

[AKA]’s entry for the Hackaday Prize, the GRID-EYE Thermal Camera is one of two Prize entries that survived the great culling and made it into the quarterfinalist round. [AKA] was kind enough to sit down and do a short little interview/bio with us, available below.

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A Breakout Board for a Flir Lepton

Thermal imaging cameras are all the rage now, and one of the best IR cameras out there is Flir’s Lepton module. It’s the sensor in the FLIR ONE, a thermal imaging camera add-on for an iPhone. Somewhat surprisingly, Flir is allowing anyone to purchase this module, and that means a whole bunch of robotics and other various electronics projects. Here’s a breakout board for Flir’s Lepton.

Electron artisan [Mike] recently got his hands on a FLIR ONE, and doing what he does best, ripped the thing apart and built the world’s smallest thermal imaging camera. Compared to professional models, the resolution isn’t that great, but this module only costs about $250. Just try to find a higher resolution thermal imager that’s cheaper.

With this breakout board, you’ll obviously need a Lepton module. There’s a group buy going on right now, with each module costing just under $260.

The Lepton module is controlled over I2C, but the process of actually grabbing images happens over SPI. The images are a bit too large to be processed with all but the beefiest Arduinos, but if you’re thinking of making Predator vision with a Raspi, BeagleBone, or a larger ARM board, this is just the ticket.

You can check out some video made with the Lepton module below.

This is also project number 3000 on hackaday.io. That’s pretty cool and worthy of mention.

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