A U.S. Researchers develop new infrared camera for drones to detect threats

Army SBIR-funded project could enhance the military’s capabilities to detect and identify hidden threats to soldiers by improving how drones perceive the world. Scientists at Polaris Sensor Technologies have developed a specialized infrared (IR) camera that incorporates polarization sensitivity, making it easier to find targets camouflaged in natural clutter than with thermal imaging alone.A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words! See More, Know More.

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Based on the properties of thermal electromagnetic radiation emitted by objects, each object possesses a distinctive polarization signature depending on the object’s surface properties and shape. The IR polarimetric camera, called Pyxis, is capable of distinguishing the polarization signature of manmade objects from that of natural backgrounds. “The Pyxis camera offers significant benefits in target detection and clutter suppression over conventional uncooled infrared cameras without any increase in size, weight or power,” says Dr. David Chenault, Polaris’s president.  Researchers were able to create the IR polarimetric camera by integrating a pixelated polarizing filter into a microbolometer. This addition allows the camera to detect polarization contrast in the environment even when thermal contrast isn’t present.  A significant amount of effort was also put into refining the assembly of the camera and implementing software upgrades that help users obtain a better understanding of the unique nature of the polarimetric data.  Chenault says that “The physics of polarization is complicated and our software enables the user to quickly and easily explore how signatures are impacted by materials and geometry in the scene.  Further, the analytical tools in our software makes comparing the performance of image metrics in the polarimetric video easy.”  The IR polarimetric camera has successfully demonstrated its capabilities in handheld, vehicle-mounted, and UAS-mounted platforms in multiple test trials.  Army researchers have also expressed their plans to mount this new specialized camera on small rotary wing and fixed wing drones for surveillance purposes to improve situational awareness, force protection, and warfighter effectiveness.  “The Pyxis camera is small enough to mount on Class 1 UAS.  We even have a ‘drone kit’ for quick integration onto many off-the-shelf drones,” says Chenault.  In the spirit of commercialization of SBIR-developed technologies, Polaris has demonstrated the IR polarimetric camera in two very different and unique applications.  In the first, the Pyxis has been able to detect oil spills.  The polarization sensitivity very effectively detects oil as thin as 50 micrometers even in difficult scenarios with waves and the emulsifiers used in spill clean up.  Scientists are also looking into incorporating man-in-the-loop interfaces and autonomous software that will allow the camera system to automatically send alerts with text and images whenever it detects the desired target. 

Once deployed on a commercial airborne platform, these cameras may soon be used to monitor oil processing and transportation facilities, such as refineries, pipelines, and transfer stations, as well as ports, harbors, and shipping lanes.  The Pyxis camera has also shown promise in detecting snakes.  Initial tests in the Everglades have shown that IR polarization is one of the more effective ways to detect pythons which have become a significant problem as an invasive species in Florida.  The drone-mounted Pyxis may be very effective at finding pythons currently inaccessible to python hunters.  “We’re very excited about both of these applications because of the positive impact they could have outside of the military,” says Chenault.  “Plus, it’s not everyday that you get to go on a snake hunt as part of your job!”  Further work is being performed to combine the camera’s unique polarization imagery with machine learning algorithms in order to improve its capabilities.   According to the Chenault, the IR polarimetric camera will only require a few more finishing touches before it is ready for deployment.  “We believe that the capability is ready now; it just needs to be integrated in its final form onto the objective platforms,” stated Chenault. “Direct interaction with the right program offices will start the process to get the technology in the hands of the Soldier.”

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