Infrared ‘night vision’ for drivers

The technology could be linked to
automatic braking systems that stop the car when a person or animal looms out
of the darkness, or “augmented reality” style head-up displays that show
otherwise invisible objects on the driver’s screen.

The new cameras are suitable for
everyday use in cars because they work at room temperature. Most cameras that
work in the long-wave infrared spectrum – the bit that objects at body
temperature are visible in, like humans and animals – need to be constantly
kept cool, to around 80 Kelvin (-193C or -315F). That is prohibitively difficult
and expensive to do in road vehicles.

Room-temperature infrared cameras
do exist, but the technology is largely held by the US military and almost
impossible to get in Europe.

However, a German research group,
the Fraunhofer Institute for Microelectronic Circuits and Systems IMS, has
created a room-temperature sensor, the Infrared Focal Plane Array (IRFPA), that
will be made available on the open European market.

The initial tests of the IRFPA have
been successful, with scientists able to produce clear images using the sensor.

What makes the IRFPA different from
normal infrared cameras is that its detectors, known as “microbolomoters”, convert
heat signals directly into digital information, without needing to first be
translated via an analogue signal. An array of microbolometers provide a
two-dimensional image.

The chief scientist behind the
IRFPA, Dr Dirk Weiler, believes the technology will have applications beyond
motoring. He says: “Mobile devices in particular should benefit from the new
development.”

The lack of a cooling mechanism
will save weight and increase battery life time, meaning that hand-held
infrared devices could become commonplace.

IMS believes that applications will
include fire fighting, when the technology could detect hotspots, or people
trapped in smoke-filled rooms.

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