This article originally appeared on VICE Asia
There’s enough evidence out there to suggest that the Chinese government’s idea of binge-watching involves watching its citizens go about their daily routines like some large-scale, life-sized version of Big Brother. With fancy equipment and facial-recognition tools, China has a state-of-the-art surveillance system. And as the country uses it to do dystopian stuff like give people social ratings and track the movements of Muslim minorities like the Uighurs, it’s already got a lot of shit from the rest of the world for its privacy-invading practices.
Now, researcher Zheng-Ping Li and his colleagues from the University of Science and Technology of China in Shanghai have taken it a notch higher by making a camera that can see even if you’re 45 kilometers/25 miles away. What makes these cameras even more advanced is that they can operate even in urban, smog-filled conditions, something that usually makes it hard to get images from very long distances.
This technique is based on laser ranging and detection, or lidar, where the subject is illuminated with laser light and the reflected light is used to create an image. It uses single-photon detectors along with a unique imaging algorithm to get super-high-resolution images put together using various points of data.
Using something called a ‘gating’ software, this technique helps control the noise entering the image. So, while these would usually remain two-dimensional images, changing the gating timings allows them to pick up photons reflected from different distances to build a 3D image.
We could tell you all the technical shit there is to know: how the team used an infrared laser with a wavelength of 1550 nanometers, an astronomical telescope with an aperture of 280mm and an AI-powered algorithm to piece together the photons into a recognisable image. But the most important part is that it works.
To test out their efforts, the team set up the system on the 20th floor of a building on Chongming Island in Shanghai and pointed it at the Pudong Civil Aviation Building across the river, some 45 kms away.
The device is no larger than a shoebox, so is already a relatively portable product that can be used for remote sensing, airborne surveillance, and target recognition and identification. Plus, it’s said to be real cheap as well. These may not be Instagram-worthy yet, but are definitely enough to spy with their little eye.
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