Tel Aviv ‘tricorder’ identifies chemical signatures from distance

Researchers in Israel believe they can turn smartphones into hyperspectral sensors capable of identifying the chemical components of objects from distance.

Prof David Mendlovic of Tel Aviv University’s School of Electrical Engineering and his doctoral student, Ariel Raz, have made the breakthrough tricorder-style device by combining an optical component and image processing software.

“A long list of fields stand to gain from this new technology,” Prof Mendlovic said in a statement. “We predict hyperspectral imaging will play a major role in consumer electronics, the automotive industry, biotechnology, and homeland security.”

Prof Mendlovic and Raz, together with a team of researchers at Unispectral Technologies, patented an optical component based on existing microelectromechanical (MEMS) technology, suitable for mass production and compatible with standard smartphone camera designs. The combination of this optical component and newly designed software are claimed to go further than current smartphone cameras by offering superior imaging performance and hyperspectral imaging capabilities.

Every material object has a hyperspectral signature, its own distinctive chemical fingerprint. Once the camera acquires an image, the data would be further analysed to extract the hyperspectral content at any location in the image.

“The optical element acts as a tuneable filter and the software — an image fusion library — would support this new component and extract all the relevant information from the image,” said Prof Mendlovic. The imaging works in both video and still photography, he said.

“We are close to producing a prototype, which is scheduled for release in June,” said Prof Mendlovic.

Unispectral, a start-up supported by Tel Aviv University and funded by the Momentum Fund, is in talks with other companies to analyse data from its cameras’ images.

This back-end analyser would need a large database of hyperspectral signatures at its disposal. Applications of the sensor include remote health monitoring and industrial quality control.

“Agricultural applications may also benefit because hyperspectral imaging could be used to identify properties of crops, vegetables, and other types of foods,” said Raz. “Its hyperspectral platform is also suitable for wearable devices.”

According to Prof Mendlovic, Unispectral is currently in advanced discussions with major smartphone makers, automotive companies, and wearable device makers to move the technology forward.