We are all familiar with the Google Street View cars making their way across almost all of the world’s nations. What you might not know is that, at nighttime, black SUVs with big camera rigs have been prowling the neighborhoods of the American cities Cambridge and Boston over the last couple of years. Who is behind the dark vehicles and what are the intentions of riding the streets at night?
Essess is a software company which was started by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The firm has equipped a fleet of vehicles with thermal imaging sensor arrays that make it possible to quickly map energy efficiency in neighborhoods of household and commercial buildings. The firm aims its technology at electric and gas utilities to help them meet energy efficiency goals.
As described by Tech Week Europe, the company’s idea is that utility firms should be able to hire the Essess thermal-imaging cars that will be able to map out an area in a quick ‘drive-by’, tracking the energy-leaks of thousands of buildings and homes. Previously, this technology was often carried out by individual person on a single building or home, using a handheld thermal camera. Now, whole neighborhoods can be quickly mapped by a utility. The gathered information can then be passed forward to homeowners or building owners so they can make structural improvements to their structures in a scalable and cost-effective manner. The video below is an early (2013) explanatory advertisement for the company’s current service:
Like the famous Street View cars that Google deployed worldwide in 2007, with a 360 camera on its roof, the Essess car also has a rooftop rig the size of a large backpack that allows the company to create heat maps of buildings. The rig includes a number of long-wave infrared radiometric cameras and near-infrared cameras that capture heat signatures. Moreover, the system includes LIDAR, a remote sensing technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light. This helps the system to figure out the 3-D configuration of what it is looking at. The solution also includes the usage of GPS to map the data automatically, so analysts can go back afterward and find which houses to target for fixes.
While the concept is simple, Essess’s drive-bys rely on sophisticated technology. Popsci reports that, for the past several years, researchers at Essess and at MIT have been working to make car-mounted thermal cameras both affordable and high-resolution enough to be useful. Because the Essess camera system uses cheaper, lower-resolution cameras, engineers had to write algorithms to stitch together several captures from the same camera into one higher-resolution image.
While Essess rapidly creates detailed information about specific houses, it is perhaps reasonable to mention another interesting company working with large scale thermal detection. However, this other nighttime operator is watching us from above and thus from an even larger perspective.
Bluesky is a UK-based specialist in aerial imaging and remote sensing data collection and processing. Actually, it has been awarded contracts to map heat loss across towns and cities covering around 10 per cent of the population in England, according to Informed Infrastructure. Using specialist thermal sensors mounted on survey aircraft Bluesky accurately records heat loss from homes and businesses.
Working with Local Authorities, property owners and energy companies the color-coded thermal maps are matched against addresses to give accurate and up to date information to tackle fuel poverty, carbon emissions and improve energy efficiency. Bluesky thermal maps have also been used to identify illegal dwellings – known as beds in sheds, and even uncover cannabis factories. Quite interesting and quite impressive and the result is illustrated by the following picture:
Conclusively, whether the technology is used to track illegal drug factories or help a household to save extra cash and contribute to a better environment, it evidentially has a great span of possible and really useful applications. For now at least, it feels quite okay being thermally monitored for a greater good, as compared to being subjected to the watching and identification-able eyes of drones and satellites.