Image Sensors Everywhere

E-mail Melanie Martella

Earlier this week, the Royal Swedish Academy of Science awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2009 to the creators of, respectively, fiber-optic communications and digital imaging. Although fiber-optics has proven immensely valuable for both global communications networks and for fiber-optic sensing, today I'm going to concentrate on the digital imaging portion and reflect, briefly, on what a game changer this technology has been.

I think it's safe to say that, without digital imaging, we wouldn't have achieved the strides in astronomy, medical imaging, manufacturing automation, and (more recently) automotive safety that we have. And that doesn't even touch on how digital photography has affected so many people.

Being able to place image sensors on spacecraft and in land-based observatories means rapid retrieval and analysis of those images and the data they contain. It also means that image sensors sensitive to other regions of the electromagnetic spectrum can be used and that, as the image sensors become faster or more sensitive or larger, that the data gathered are both more plentiful and more accurate.

Digital X-rays means that the radiology tech taking the pictures can see immediately whether the images they've taken are any good; because the imagers themselves are so sensitive to X-rays, the patients are exposed to less radiation; and, last but by no means least, the images are easily transferred and digitally enhanced. We've got cameras we swallow and cameras that enable laporascopic surgery and other explorations of the human body.

Within the industrial automation field, machine vision has revolutionized some forms of manufacturing automation, moving QC throughout the production process and enabling earlier identification and correction of problems. The increasingly sophisticated image analysis software coupled with better and faster image sensors means ever greater production speeds and further process automation.

In the military applications we've got image sensors in UAVs such as the Predator, better surveillance cameras, cameras on bomb-disposal robots, night vision goggles, and thermal imaging (with its helpful civilian uses) to name just a few.

Image sensors in cars are a more recent development, but they're being used to help people to park, to keep a watchful eye on blind spots, to warn of lane departures, and to dim headlights automatically. I am very sure that additional applications are under development as we speak.

And, finally, digital photography allows us, professional or amateur, to take more pictures, possibly better ones, and to share them easily. Tell me which applications I've missed!

So, a very hearty thank you and congratulations to Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith.