Future Big Data: Devices That Can See Through Walls

No, I’m not so deluded with the latest sci-fi movies or superhero flicks to get me talking about this now.  But there’s some really cool technology headed to the consumer market, out to change our lives forever. In our big data series today, we’re going to tackle these amazing gadgets and technologies that literally know no boundaries.

Researchers at the University of Texas Dallas successfully designed an imager chip that can see through walls. They will be embedded into mobile phones. This discovery boasts two scientific developments: tapping an unused range of electromagnetic spectrum which brought us wavelength energies such as AM and FM signals, and a new microchip technology.

“We’ve created approaches that open a previously untapped portion of the electromagnetic spectrum for consumer use and life-saving medical applications,” said Dr. Kenneth O, professor of electrical engineering at UT Dallas and director of the Texas Analog Center of Excellence (TxACE). “The terahertz range is full of unlimited potential that could benefit us all.”

This technology will create images with terahertz signals, therefore eliminating the need for lenses in devices and ultimately, cutting back costs. Moreover, the microchip is developed using CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) technology, which is already found in most consumer electronic devices today.

This isn’t the first time a see-through device has been developed. Researchers at MIT’s Lincoln Lab developed a radar technology that will feed live video of what’s going on behind walls last year. The equipment is placed atop a movable card and has 21 antennas aligned in two rows, 8 of which are receiving elements and 13 transmitting below. Lincoln Lab technical staff and project leader Gregory Charvat said the device is especially important in “urban combat situations.”

“If you’re in a high-risk combat situation, you don’t want one image every 20 minutes, and you don’t want to have to stand right next to a potentially dangerous building,” Charvat says.

Startup Xandem is also developing its own version of see-through device. It’s an all-seeing motion detection system that’s intended for the security scene. Most commercial systems use an optical beam, whose great weakness is that it’s very interruptible, so it requires an area of uninterruptible sight lines. Infrared systems are also often used, but they are susceptible to false alarms and can be blocked by insulators.  Xandem eliminates this problem by using radio waves, which can penetrate through trees and walls which mean it can operate stealthily.

“Our target is the commercial security market — and that’s worth billions,” says Wilson. But being able to see where people are located in a building will be valuable to other markets too, like firefighters, police, border agents and SWAT teams.