Seeing beyond the lights

In road safety equipment, the latest is an infrared camera for enabling vehicles to traverse safely on treacherous roads

Published: Friday 15 November 1996

a night-time boost to car safety is in the offing from an affordable infrared ( ir ) camera that will detect hazards beyond the limit of headlights. ir night vision systems are currently the exclusive preserve of military vehicles and warplanes. But researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory ( ornl ), Tennessee, us , believe ir image-enhancement equipment, which have a wide variety of applications, can be mass produced. They could be attached to cars and light aircraft for less than us $1,050.

The high cost of conventional ir night-vision technology is brought about by its sophisticated optics and the need for liquid nitrogen to cool its expensive sensors. The new system -- the uncooled micro cantilever ir camera (it works by tiny metallic needles, called cantilevers) -- operates at ambient temperatures using relatively simple technology that enables the cost to be brought down to an affordable level. Using the new camera, drivers will 'see' beyond the range of their headlights and past the glare from approaching cars, selecting between either a picture of the road ahead or a simple alarm to warn them of any heat sources in their path, such as pedestrians or animals on unlit or foggy roads.

The cantilevers scan an image of the road ahead in a mirror. As they are deflected by the ir radiation, they bend slightly, generating small electrical currents that are stored in a memory chip; this is translated into an image in the same way as a digital picture is built up on a computer screen. The ornl scientists believe once they have perfected the array of cantilevers-on-a-chip, the ir imaging camera will have a wide range of other potential applications in areas where the cost of traditional systems has proven prohibitive, such as non-military aviation, industrial processes, emergency services and security systems.

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