The heat of the night

A thermal imaging camera for use in cars could significantly reduce the number of pedestrians killed on the roads at night, its UK developer has claimed.

In 2001 823 pedestrians died on the UK’s roads, a rate of more than two a day, many of whom were killed in the evening and at night.

The 1cm-cube camera, developed by Qinetiq and UK sensor specialist First Technology, detects body heat from pedestrians, cyclists and animals on the road ahead and warns the driver, said Alec Williams of Qinetiq’s automotive technology division. ‘The camera is tuned to be sensitive to emissions in the 8-14 microns waveband – the heat emitted by humans.’

Image processors identify the objects from the camera’s picture, and the system passes this information to the driver by visual or audible warnings, or even byprojecting extra light on to the scene ahead.

The image processors are contained in a central computer, which can be connected to the car’s controls, such as the adaptive cruise control system.

If the driver fails to brake when the cameras detect a pedestrian ahead, the vehicle can stop itself or take action to avoid the collision.

Two cameras mounted on each wing mirror are sensitive enough to pick out the heat generated by pedestrians, cyclists and animals up to 100m away, although they will be more effective in identifying objects at distances of around 30m and under, said Williams. But even at a distance of around 15m and a speed of 60mph, the car’s controls would have time to react and dramatically reduce speed, he said.

The information gained by the thermal camera could also be converted into computer graphic form, combined with images produced by a CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) camera, and displayed on a small glass plate in front of the windscreen. This graphic display, similar to those used in jet aircraft, would allow the driver to see the objects ahead of them.

The thermal imaging technology can also be used inside cars to monitor the size and seating position of the occupants, helping car makers comply with pressure in the US to introduce intelligent airbags that adapt to individual passengers, said Williams.The camera is based on technology developed to allow the military to spot the enemy at night. When produced in volume it would cost less than £50.

Note: A remote rain sensor, which could automatically operate windscreen wipers and demisters, but unlike existing rain sensors does not have to be built into the screen, has been developed by Qinetiq and First Technology. The sensor, a CMOS camera fitted to the back of a car’s rear-view mirror, ‘sees’ light in front of the windscreen. Image processors analyse the information and judge the intensity of rainfall and the build-up of moisture on the inside of the windscreen.

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