An Australian entrepreneur is eyeing global markets after commercialising world-leading thermal camera technology that observes stress in aircraft, heavy equipment, 3D-printed parts, and even rollercoasters.

The DSLR-sized LTS-640V camera’s underlying technology was developed 15 years ago within the Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) in Melbourne, whose responsibilities include monitoring Australian Defence Force fighter planes for metal fatigue over time.

Regular testing during design and ongoing usage are critical for ensuring the integrity of metal components like airplane wings, whose load-bearing ability is tested during thousands of hours of simulated and actual flying.

The conventional approach was to blanket the aircraft with strain gauges, which – due to the properties of thermoelasticity – cause infinitesimal movements in metal as it heats and cools due to physical stresses.

If they could find another way to measure those temperature changes, DSTG researchers realised, they could observe the effects of structural stress in real time.

“As long as we could get a device that could show us a very small temperature change, theoretically we could see the stress,” Kheang Khauv, an engineer who was working with DSTG as an infrared camera sales technician at the time, told Information Age.

“The difficult part is that there was no system in the world that could get close to seeing the temperatures that stress gives off.”

Those temperatures are extremely small – 1 millikelvin, equivalent to 0.001˚C – and any suitable sensor needed to be able to not only measure local temperatures, but differentiate changes in those temperatures from natural fluctuations in the material’s temperature.

The complexity of the engineering involved was evident in the fact that the most sensitive equipment available could only resolve temperatures down to 20 millikelvin.

“Even then, you could spend a quarter of a million dollars and it was big and bulky,” recalled Khauv, who is now managing director of 1Millikelvin, the Melbourne-based startup launched in 2018 to commercialise what would ultimately become ground-breaking technology.

“You needed a PhD to operate it,” he added, “and it was not really ideal for the application. What we really needed was a small, robust camera like a GoPro.”

Eighteen months of R&D led to the production of a 2006 prototype that “was actually better than the expensive system,” Khauv said, noting that “a quirk in the whole thing that once we actually got it working, we could get better results from this camera than we could from the expensive ones.”

Years in the making

Yet technological success was still a way down the track for the researchers, whose work around the technology – officially called microbolometer thermoelastic evaluation (MiTE) – was published in the literature but failed to gain broad commercial support.

Its ongoing use within Defence, however, showed the technology to be immensely valuable in helping aircraft manufacturers closely monitor the stress on airplane parts, including structural certification testing of the F/A-18 Hornet and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

“The technology can improve our ability to quantify stresses, particularly in structurally critical areas where traditional technologies have had very limited capability,” a Defence spokesperson is quoted as saying.

It was not until 2014 that Khauv determined to make the technology work – co-founding LRM Technologies Group and securing the backing of Defence to commercialise their work around MiTE.

In 2018, LRM spun off 1Millikelvin to commercialise a MiTE camera, buoyed by $275,000 in grant funding from the Victorian Government, Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre, and Defence Science Institute.

Khauv said technology trials had proven the camera’s value in a range of manufacturing settings including validating the structural integrity of 3D-printed parts and supporting quality control during heavy manufacturing of vehicles like mining equipment and trains.

It has proven to be an eye-opener for engineers that typically rely on computational modelling to simulate the effects of real-world stresses in software – a strong theoretical approach that, one manufacturer found during recent testing of the LTS-640V, doesn’t always predict real-world behaviour.

“The moment the camera turned on and they saw the data,” Khauv recalled, “a few expletives just came out of their mouths and they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Their computer simulation did not even show what was happening in real life.”

With a commercial model in place at last, Khauv says 1Millikelvin is now focused on raising awareness of its technology, increasing outreach to universities, and targeting lucrative overseas markets – with revenues expected to reach $8m by 2025 as the technology team refines “other developments” such as adapting the cameras to more-complex environments.

“We actually told the world about this 15 years ago and all the science behind it when we published it,” he says.

“The theory is available; the issue now is awareness.”