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Coming Soon: Drones That Can See in the Dark

Drone maker DJI is partnering with FLIR, a leading maker of thermal image sensors.

Ina Fried for Re/code

Chinese drone maker DJI on Thursday said it is working with FLIR, the leading maker of thermal imaging sensors, to create a new drone camera that can shoot in complete darkness.

The camera, known as the Zenmuse XT, will be available in the first quarter of next year. It could be especially useful for firefighters and first responders who need to see in the dark or through smoke.

 The DJI Zenmuse XT thermal drone lens will ship in early 2016.
The DJI Zenmuse XT thermal drone lens will ship in early 2016.
Ina Fried for Re/code

DJI said it will announce pricing closer to launch, but the technology is clearly aimed at professional uses rather than the consumer market.

So how big is the market for a drone that can see in the dark?

“It’s a large niche, let’s put it that way,” said Colin Snow, CEO of Drone Analyst, a research and advisory firm. “Think of how many firehouses there are in the United States.”

Other uses include agriculture, to monitor plant health and pest invasions, as well as industrial uses, such as detecting problems in electric grids or solar panels.

“It can see things that the human eye doesn’t see,” Snow said. “That presents a bunch of industrial applications, not just first responders.”

While there have been plenty of thermal cameras in the past, as well as photo-capable drones, this is the first time the two have been integrated so tightly. For about the past year, Snow said, some people have been hacking together solutions by attaching thermal cameras to existing drones. FLIR also has its own $2,000 camera that can be mounted on a drone, but is not as tightly integrated or stabilized the way the new jointly developed camera is. The Zenmuse XT is largely similar, but interacts with DJI’s software and is attached via a device known as a gimbal that helps stabilize the resulting footage.

DJI has become best known for getting a bird’s-eye view of things, like we did at CeBit last year. But it has also attracted interest for a wide range of commercial uses, from agriculture to industry to first responders. FLIR focuses on all manner of infrared systems; most are aimed at professionals but it also sells a consumer product, known as the FLIR One, which attaches to a smartphone.

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