Sept. 22, 2015 — Inspecting solar panels, fighting fires and helping farmers manage crops: these are all jobs that thermal imaging camera producer Flir Systems Inc. envisions could be done by drones -- with the help of its new, professional-grade camera.
Oregon-based Flir is set to launch the new camera, called the Vue Pro, in November 2015. Like previous Flir cameras, the Vue Pro measures and records data, but it also allows users to see footage in real-time. And it’s made specifically to fit in the GoPro mount that many drones come equipped with, from the basic $499 DJI Phantom II all the way up to the $100,000+ Aeryon Scout. The Vue Pro will cost $1,999 and ships in November.
Drone operators have been using Flir products for some time, coming up with their own manual mounts: as far back as 2010, a U.S. Coast Guard used a Flir thermal imaging camera on one of its drones and discovered that a fishing boat was actually smuggling drugs.
But in the last 18 months, Flir recognized a shift as more drones targeted at a “prosumer” market and costing upward of $1,000 hit the marketplace.
“Drones have gotten into the hands of a lot more people,” said Flir VP Jeffrey Frank.
Frank says the $1,999 Vue Pro will allow many drone operators, including firefighters who want aerial images to seek out hot spots in burning buildings, or farmers looking to get aerial views of their crops to check for dehydration, to get by with just a basic drone, instead of a $25,000 enterprise drone.
“At the end of the day, the nature of the drone itself really needs to be good enough to get the job done,” he said. “Often something as simple as a DJI Phantom is perfectly adequate.”
And, Frank says, the Vue Pro will also allow for jobs previously done with hand-held thermal imaging cameras to become much easier and more efficient. Take solar-panel inspections, for example. Often one or two panels out of 10 will malfunction, and cause the entire solar-panel array to operate at 90% efficiency -- with no one the wiser. So, companies send out inspectors with a hand-held, thermal imaging camera to spot the malfunctioning panels. With a Vue Pro-equipped drone, that job becomes much easier, Frank says.
Powerful cameras on drones are proving to be the next big thing in the drone industry. Video chip maker Ambarella AMBA, -3.79% said 10% of its revenue in the most recent quarter came from cameras made specifically for drones.
In Flir’s most recent earnings report on July 24, it missed analyst expectations on earnings but beat on revenue. Revenue was $393 million, up 6% compared with the prior year. Analysts had expected revenue of $378 million.
Frank sold 4,500 shares at $28.37 on Sept. 15, according to a SEC filing.
Frank said it’s too early to tell if drones will be a key revenue generator for the company and said Flir is taking a moderate approach to investing in its drone vertical. Of the $1.5 billion in revenue Flir did in 2013, Frank says drones aren’t “moving the needle much yet.” But, he said, “we see a lot of opportunity in this space.”
And he is certain that drones aren’t a fad.
“I’ve been through a number of bubbles in my career. From my perspective, drones serve a real valuable purpose. There’s a true value proposition there.”