Imagine what it must feel like to be a member of SWAT huddled outside the apartment of a hostage-taker, or a soldier crouched near the door of a terrorist compound, or a firefighter preparing to run into a burning building — would you want to be the first person through the door? Two new inventions are designed to help first responders, soldiers and police get a glimpse of what danger lays in wait without having to charge in head-first. And no, neither of them is a mirror stuck to the end of a stick.
The first is, essentially, a bouncy sphere the size of a tennis ball that’s laced with six camera lenses. The idea is, once it’s tossed through a doorway or a window, it ricochets around the room, snapping pictures of its surroundings, stitching them together in a panorama like the one above, and feeding them immediately to a computer or mobile device. Meanwhile, the ball’s sensors gauge temperature, radiation, air quality and other elements of the environment.
Each of the bouncy ball’s cameras shoots two photos per second, and is equipped with infrared LEDs so it can produce quality images even in the dark. Apparently, Navy SEALs use these types of devices, but they’re too expensive to be a commercially viable tool for fire departments or police units.
“Robots, fiber-optic cameras, and other technologies should reduce this risk, but in practice these are too costly, classified, and complex to reach the front lines,” reads a promotion video from Bounce Imaging, the company behind the throwable sensor balls. The balls should be available to law enforcement teams in Massachusetts in January 2013.
The second innovation isn’t as fun as a bouncy ball, but it’s a much more effective solution for seeing through walls, under certain circumstances. It involves utilizing wifi signals as the backbone for a passive radar system. It comes from a pair of British engineers who devised a system to use the signals emanating from wireless routers to generate live image feeds of objects surrounding the routers.
Typical radar, invented by the Navy in the 1930s, emits radio waves and measures the distances of signals that reflect off of objects. Wifi generates similar radio waves. The key, developed by the engineers, involves tapping the frequency changes of those signals as they bounce off of their surroundings. All you need is two antennae and a computer to process the signals.
The device the engineers designed is about the size of a briefcase and could, theoretically, give its holders X-ray vision strong enough to see through a one-foot-thick brick wall. The catch is that, like the Jurassic Park version of T. rex, it doesn’t pick up on things that aren’t moving. The engineers are working to enhance the sensitivity of the device so that it can detect something as subtle as the expansion of a breathing person’s ribcage.
So in the future we’ll be surveilling each other with bouncy balls and super-accurate Matrix-ish wifi radar. Doesn’t that sound fun? The jury’s out on that one, but if this tech can save lives, then let’s hope it makes it to market.