Researchers have developed a method for using radio signals to create real-time images and videos of hidden and moving objects. The system allows real-time imaging around corners and through walls as well as tracking of fast-moving objects such as millimeter-sized space debris flying at 20,000 miles per hour — all from standoff distances.

The imaging method is a variation on radar, which sends an electromagnetic pulse, waits for the reflections, and measures the round-trip time to determine distance to a target. Multi-site radar usually has one transmitter and several receivers that receive echoes and triangulate them to locate an object. The new method — called m-Widar — uses multiple transmitters and one receiver.

The team demonstrated the technique in an anechoic (non-echoing) chamber, making images of a 3D scene involving a person moving behind drywall. The transmitter power was equivalent to 12 cellphones sending signals simultaneously to create images of the target from a distance of about 10 meters (30 feet) through the wallboard. The current system has a potential range of up to several kilometers. With some improvements, the range could be much farther, limited only by transmitter power and receiver sensitivity.

The basic technique is a form of computational imaging known as transient rendering, which has been around as an image reconstruction tool since 2008. The idea is to use a small sample of signal measurements to reconstruct images based on random patterns and correlations. The technique has previously been used in communications coding and network management, machine learning, and some advanced forms of imaging.

The new technique combines signal processing and modeling techniques from other fields to create a new mathematical formula to reconstruct images. Each transmitter emits different pulse patterns simultaneously in a specific type of random sequence that interfere in space and time with the pulses from the other transmitters and produce enough information to build an image.

The transmitting antennas operated at frequencies from 200 megahertz to 10 gigahertz, roughly the upper half of the radio spectrum, which includes micro-waves. The receiver consisted of two antennas connected to a signal digitizer. The digitized data were transferred to a laptop computer and uploaded to the graphics processing unit to reconstruct the images. The team used the method to reconstruct a scene with 1.5 billion samples per second, a corresponding image frame rate of 366 kilohertz (frames per second). By comparison, this is about 100 to 1,000 times more frames per second than a cellphone video camera.

With 12 antennas, the system generated 4096-pixel images with a resolution of about 10 centimeters across a 10-meter scene. This image resolution can be useful when sensitivity or privacy is a concern. The resolution could be improved by upgrading the system using existing technology including more transmitting antennas and faster random signal generators and digitizers. In the future, the images could be improved by using quantum entanglement, in which the properties of individual radio signals would become interlinked.

The new imaging technique could also be adapted to transmit visible light instead of radio signals — ultra-fast lasers could boost image resolution but would lose the capability to penetrate walls — or sound waves used for sonar and ultrasound imaging applications. In addition to imaging of emergency conditions and space debris, the new method might also be used to measure the velocity of shock waves, a key metric for evaluating explosives, and to monitor vital signs such as heart rate and respiration.

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