“The technology is used to determine how you are posed in relation to a target, how far away you are, and how fast you are moving in relation to it,” says Warren P. Ruemmele, assistant project executive for C3PO. “If earlier investments hadn’t been made and successful, it wouldn’t be a candidate for what we are trying to do.”
ASC’s flash LIDAR sensors use a short pulse of radiation from a near-infrared laser to illuminate a scene in front of the camera lens. Each pixel in the camera detector array measures the round trip time for the photons, which is then converted into an accurate range measurement. Each pulse of the flash LIDAR produces a 3D image consisting of thousands or tens of thousands of points acquired essentially simultaneously, which effectively eliminates motion-induced distortions.
A graphical user interface on a computer displays the data in the form of a color-coded range (distance) map. Current ASC flash LIDAR cameras are capable of acquiring 3D images at rates of up to 30 frames per second, which can be viewed as a video and processed for identifying various scene features. In practice, a data processor could autonomously analyze the surrounding environment and execute vehicle maneuvers.
Two versions of ASC’s 3D flash LIDAR camera are currently available: the DragonEye Space Camera (named after the Dragon spacecraft), and a terrestrial version called TigerEye. Both products incorporate improvements that resulted from working with NASA to make the camera ready for space—including its compact size, low power, light weight, and enhanced performance and sensitivity.
“After we brought the technology to NASA, they helped us develop it for space applications. That refined it for other applications,” says Dr. Roger Stettner, founder and president of ASC.
A number of large- and medium-sized aerospace organizations, including SpaceX, Ball Aerospace, and Northrop Grumman, have purchased flash LIDAR cameras from ASC. By 2010, ASC had sold about 100 cameras—not only for potential space use, but for use on Earth as well. 3D flash LIDAR cameras can assist almost any manned or unmanned vehicle with collision avoidance, navigation, or object tracking—through brownout (helicopterlanding- generated dust clouds) conditions, tree leaves, smoke, fog, darkness, or under water. It could also be used for surveillance around the perimeter of a facility or at a border.
“The cameras can be the basis for a solution that would give pilots situational awareness, visibility, and the ability to map the terrain while coming in for a landing— in much the same way you would expect of a spacecraft landing on the Moon or Mars,” says Dr. Stettner.
One particularly useful application is in cars and trucks. When mounted on an automobile, the technology can show a driver how close or far away things are to assist in avoiding collisions. A monitor on the car would distinguish how far away others cars, bicyclists, or pedestrians are, as well as how fast they are moving. Objects that are closer might appear red in the image while objects that are far away might appear green. According to ASC, the cameras could come standard on high-end automobiles in just 6 to 8 years.
In the meantime, NASA continues to fund flash LIDAR technology development efforts through SBIRs and projects such as ALHAT to progress toward a more robust and flight-like sensor configuration with a larger detector array, greater sensitivity, finer range resolution, lower range measurement noise, and flight-qualified electronics and detectors. The objective is an optimal combination of laser power, operational range, and sensor mass and performance for NASA missions.
The way Thomas Laux, vice president of business development at ASC, sees it, “There is a future within NASA—and certainly outside of NASA—for this technology.”
The DragonEye Space Camera™ and TigerEye 3D Flash LIDAR Camera Kit™ are trademarks of Advanced Scientific Concepts Inc.