A HELICOPTER HOVERED high above a suburban Boston backyard, where the homeowner swore someone was hiding in his tarp-covered boat parked by the garage.
After he alerted police, an aircraft was brought in with an infrared camera mounted to its underside.
From heat-detecting images, authorities determined there was indeed a person inside the boat, and that he was armed, alone and injured.
That individual was the lone surviving suspect of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing—Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—and technology manufactured by Goleta-based FLIR Systems Inc. helped police surround and capture the fugitive. The assist came from FLIR Star Safire HD, to be exact.
“It helped them plan ahead,” said Rich Antles, FLIR’s Vice President of Operations, who noted the company’s infrared cameras also helped recovery efforts after the World Trade Center towers were destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City.
FLIR is in the business of giving folks a hand — whether it’s a camera firefighters use to navigate a burning building, a surveillance camera to prevent package theft from your doorstep or night-vision technology in cars that detects pedestrians before drivers can see them.
A business once better known for supplying the military with high-end detection equipment is now making its way into homes and communities. Traffic signals at busy Goleta street corners, for example, change colors because FLIR cameras tell them to.
FLIR is the undisputed world leader for uncooled infrared devices, commanding 54 percent of the worldwide market, according to MaxTech.
After years of operating out of four buildings, the company recently moved its 450 employees into one facility at 6769 Hollister Ave. FLIR executives have every intention of stay- ing in Goleta for a long haul of continued growth. “Goleta is the infrared capital of the world,” Antles said.
The fact that so many infrared technology companies call Goleta home is no coincidence. FLIR, Raytheon, Santa Barbara Infrared and other premier infrared scientists took their cue from the 1960s-era Hughes Aircraft Co., which later became the Santa Barbara Research Center.
Antles considers himself a third-generation infrared employee because his grandmother worked as a stock room clerk at Santa Barbara Research Center, across the street from where FLIR is now. His mother found herself there in the material control department, and Antles moved into the field after graduating from UC Santa Barbara.
FLIR was established in 1978 to delve into the develop- ment of high-performance, low-cost infrared (thermal) imaging systems, which allow users to detect the energy or heat people and objects emit in darkness, adverse weather or through smoke and haze. FLIR markets itself as the world’s sixth sense.
While demand for infrared technology was historically driven by the U.S. government for military and space applications, FLIR always intended to adapt technology for commercial and consumer applications, said Bill Terre, FLIR’s vice president and general manager.
Those lab applications came in the late 1980s, as did the acquisition of key industrial infrared imaging players from Hughes Aircraft Co. in 1990.
FLIR continued gaining ground until the early 2000s, when the company acquired Goleta’s Indigo Systems and kicked into high gear.
Indigo’s small, entrepreneurial staff and FLIR’s sales chan- nel, brand name and financial standing combined to create a perfect storm of productivity and profitability, Antles said. FLIR now had its own supply of infrared sensors and detectors.
A strategic partnership with Autoliv cemented FLIR’s relevance worldwide. Autoliv was founded 63 years ago in Sweden when owners decided to switch from manufactur- ing uniforms to patenting the cloth used to make seat belts and, later, airbags.
Autoliv’s first foray into preventing a crash came when the two paired up to place infrared cameras into cars to enhance night vision in 2005, according to Richard Seoane, general manager of the company that now has 50 employees at a Goleta facility (in addition to operating in 28 countries worldwide).
“Our passion is for saving lives,” Seoane said. “We saw that infrared technology was something that’s beneficial. Sixty-nine percent of pedestrian deaths occur at night. You need a technology that can see through the dark.
“(FLIR) had the technology, but they didn’t necessarily have the know-how of production and quality. It’s a win- win scenario.”
Antles credits Autoliv’s lean manufacturing model—in which waste and inefficiency are constantly eliminated— for much of the success FLIR enjoys today.
That night-vision technology is in its fourth generation and can be found in more than 40 different vehicle models. “As you look at infrared technology and you look at where the automotive market is going, there’s definitely a lot of opportunity,” Seoane said.
FLIR grew rapidly, gobbling up leases for Goleta office space on Castilian and Thornwood drives.
In 2009, FLIR bought two buildings within the Cabrillo Business Park to consolidate operations about a half-mile from its old digs. After two years of construction, FLIR built out a 50,000-square-foot administrative/engineering building and a 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility for 250 employees in that department.
In late 2015, FLIR moved into the space that’s 20,000 square feet larger and allows room for growth. “Today we enjoy a single production flow throughout the factory,” Antles said. “Our former set-up, with four distinct facilities, was a bit cumbersome.”
FLIR added 35 employees in 2015 and expects that trend to continue. Their new offices have a progressive layout enjoyed by many tech companies, ditching the cubicles for desks in an open bullpen to improve communication and foster collaboration.
FLIR has made a commitment to keeping good-paying manufacturing jobs in town. Others might save money by relocating overseas, Antles said, but FLIR’s quality can’t be matched. “The way we win is to focus on productivity, yield and fielded product reliability,” he said. “We have world-class reliability. We don’t want to see jobs leave the South Coast.” FLIR also treats its employees well, experiencing a 98 percent annual retention rate. Many are homegrown in Goleta or handpicked as the best from UCSB.
“We’re grateful FLIR chose to put down roots in Goleta with the purchase of their campus off Hollister,” City Manager Michelle Greene said. “In addition to the high-paying jobs they provide to 450 people, they are good community partners. Their employ- ees volunteer to coach youth sports, raise money for music pro- grams in the schools and serve on nonprofit boards.
“Their company supports community programs and events like the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy, the Goleta Education Foundation, the Lemon Festival and the Goleta Fireworks Festival, to name a few.”
FLIR continues to lead the field, introducing the first mobile phone infrared camera accessory for iPhone and Android called FLIR ONE.
Forever pushing the limits, FLIR partnered with Caterpillar to cre- ate the world’s first CAT S60 “ruggedized” cell phone, which has a built-infrared camera and will be available to consumers in June.
The phone would be especially attractive to contractors because you can safely drop it up to six feet on concrete and use it 15 feet underwater. It’s only slightly heavier than your typical smart- phone. Especially key, Antles said, is that FLIR’s camera displays heat-detected images as well as the visual overlay of a regular camera—the only company to do so.
It’s ideas like these that keep FLIR ahead of the curve. It’s also why the company built an Innovation Center inside its new offices, which have a storied history of their own.
FLIR is headquartered in the former Delco property where engi- neers built the Lunar Rover to enable U.S. astronauts to drive on the moon in the 1960s. That Lunar Rover remains on the moon today, Antles said, and that’s the type of staying power FLIR aims to enjoy.
The company has always set out to create ever smaller infrared cameras and enough of them to lower the cost for consumers.
“The dream has become a reality,” Antles said.