Thermal Imaging with Smartphone

Photo illus by Pixabay

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The new wave of smartphones all come with incredible cameras that produce brilliant photos. There’s only one complaint — the thick camera lenses on the back of the device. 

A revolutionary lens developed by engineers at the University of Utah could be used to flatten camera bumps, e.g. an iPhone camera, but could also be added to drones and night vision cameras for military purposes.

The engineers claim to have designed a lens that is a thousand times thinner than the leading variants, which could omit the unsightly bumps on the back of the sleek glass. While conventional lenses for smartphone cameras are a couple of millimeters thick, their new lens is only a few microns thick.

Instead of being curved like its counterparts, the new lens is flat and bends light directly at the camera’s sensor – instead of catching light off an object and bending it before it reaches the sensor.

While a conventional curved lens takes light that bounces off an object and bends it before it ultimately reaches the camera sensor that forms the digital picture, this new lens has many microstructures, each bending the light in the correct direction at the sensor, according to 

“You can think of these microstructures as very small pixels of a lens,” Rajesh Menon explains. “They’re not a lens by themselves but all working together to act as a lens.”

While this could ultimately produce smartphone cameras with no bump, it could also give them the ability to take thermal imaging to look for heat signatures. 

The team has developed a fabrication process with a new type of polymer along with algorithms that can calculate the geometry of these microstructures.

The result is a lens that is flat instead of curved and more than 20 times thinner than a human hair with the added capability of being used in thermal imaging to see objects in the dark. A more immediate use for this technology would allow lighter military drones to fly longer for night missions or to map forest fires or look for victims of natural disasters. 

And soldiers in the field could carry much lighter night vision cameras for a longer duration.

The research was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.