Gone are the days when lidar systems are always perceived to be bulky, expensive and high-power. Researchers at Standford University have came up with a new approach that allows any digital camera to capture 3D images through a high-frequency, low-power and compact optical device.
Nowadays, standard image sensors can easily capture the light intensity and color, and have been installed on every smartphone in practical use. Relying on the CMOS technology, these cameras have become smaller and more powerful and provide a resolution of tens of millions of pixels. However, they were constrained in capturing only flat, namely two-dimension images until now.
In existing cases, measuring the distance between objects with light requires specialized and expensive lidar systems. The principle of Lidar is similar to radar, but instead of using radio waves, it uses light to emit a laser to an object and measure the reflected light. Afterward, it will tell you how far away an object is, how fast it is traveling, and whether it is moving closer or farther away. Most critically, it is capable of calculating whether the paths of the two moving objects will intersect in the future.
Obviously, the new engineering possibilities brought by researchers from Standford University are magnificent. Instead of applying a light source and a modulator that requires relatively large amounts of power, the team cooperated with the Laboratory for Integrated Nano-Quantum Systems (LINQS) and ArabianLab and came up with effective solutions relied on a phenomenon known as acoustic resonance. This simple acoustic modulator adopts a thin wafer of lithium niobate coated with two transparent electrodes, which are highly energy-efficient compared with other ways to transmit light.
Technically speaking, when electricity is introduced through the electrode, the lattice at the center of the atomic structure will change its shape. It vibrates at extraordinary high, predictable, and controllable frequencies. Once it vibrates, lithium niobate will strongly modulate light by adding a pair of polarizers. This means that this new modulator is able to turn lights on and off millions of times per second, dramatically increasing the efficiency of the system.
In practical scenarios, this new lidar system will soon be applied to drones, extraterrestrial rovers, and other applications. It can be perceived that its compact, low-cost, energy-efficient design allows any industrial machine system to be sooner and more controllable. Moreover, this compact and energy-saving resolution that can be used in lidar systems allows almost any digital camera to sense depth. In other words, in the near future, even simple digital cameras or smartphone will be able to capture 3D images without carrying bulky and expensive lidar systems.
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News.stanford.edu. 2022. Stanford engineers enable simple cameras to see in 3D. [online] Available at: <https://news.stanford.edu/press-releases/2022/03/28/smartphone-cameras-see-3d/> [Accessed 8 June 2022].