Technological advances aren't just about making new devices. Many times it's more a matter of taking an existing device and improving on it. A case in point is Raytheon's work on a new thermal imaging chip that the company says will find so many applications due to it being so small and cheap, that it may make the humble flashlight obsolete.
Unlike other night vision technologies that work by amplifying tiny traces of visible light or by illuminating scenes with an infrared lamp, Raytheon's new thermal imaging chip detects heat in complete darkness. It is manufactured using "wafer-level packaging," which Raytheon says is the same process used to make computer chips. Over the past decade, the technology has reduced the imaging chips in size by a factor of six, while the number of parts for a sensor package has reduced from 15 to two.
Wafer-level packaging creates thousands of microscopic windows and vacuum-packaged thermal detectors called microbolometers on the chip's surface. Each microbolometer is 17 microns wide and a single sensor chip can contain tens of millions of microbolometers with each wafer holding thousands of sensor chips. This simplifies construction and greatly reduces the cost of the thermal sensors. It also makes them much more rugged, so they can hold up to everything from a smartphone in a pocket to battlefield conditions.
Applications for the new chips are "endless," Raytheon engineers say, with uses for everything from smart cars to potholing. The chips make it possible, for example, to issue thermal imagers for every soldier and police officer as standard kit, allowing them to follow targets by the heat of their footprints. In addition, cars could be equipped with sensors that adjust the airbags by being able to tell a child from a bag of groceries based on the heat signature.
"Once it reaches a certain price point, you'll see it kind of popping up in a lot of different areas," says Adam Kennedy, a lead engineer at Raytheon Vision Systems. "That's just very, very exciting."