If we're ever going to have autonomous robots, they're going to need to be able to see better than we can. To this end, researchers from the Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, United Kingdom say they have developed a new high-definition scanner that can create 3D virtual models of objects. Using lasers. From a half mile away.
The system works by sweeping a low-power infrared laser beam over an object--not unlike the Kinect you might have in your home. It then records the round-trip flight time of each of the laser's photons as a pixel map that resolves into a three-dimensional virtual model of an object. The scientists say that the system works at such a fine level that it can show depth on the millimeter scale on an object located over half a mile from the scanner.
In addition creating high-definition 3D object models, the scanner can also be used to observe minute changes. You could use it to measure the movement of rocks, or to watch grass grow. The scanner is also particularly good at identifying objects hidden behind clutter such as foliage.
Meanwhile, there is already talk of improving the scanner's range from 0.62 miles (one kilometer) away to 6 miles (10 kilometers).
The one thing the scanner can't seem to do is detect human faces--which it ends up displaying as dark, featureless areas--because human skin does not bounce back enough photons. So conspiracy theories will be happy to know their identities will be safe from these laser-scanning arrays (for now).
The scientists are currently exploring potential uses for their photon counting laser system. Ideally, we would like to see this sort of technology implemented into everything from smarter Roombas that don't bump into all your furniture or better robotic cars that can map out the roads more quickly.