5 Ways Optics & Photonics Technology Has Advanced
Like most scientific disciplines, photonics and optics have evolved rapidly as technology has advanced.
With devices becoming smaller and more precise, as well as more affordable to produce, optics and photonics technology is being used in both scientific and consumer applications with great success. Here are 5 interesting ways optics and photonics technology has changed in recent years:
AI in Imaging
Camera-based fluorescence microscopes and other imaging tools used by scientists have often produced problematic images. That’s because these high-resolution images are very sensitive to shifts in their focus, which can quickly produce blurry or out-of-focus images.
These blurry images must then be recaptured or otherwise fixed using human intervention, eating up a great deal of time and manpower.
The need for manual focusing and re-imaging slows down scientific research and impedes the ability of scientists to produce large bodies of research that could contribute to advancements in their field.
By pairing these microscopes with artificial intelligence thanks to advances in optic technology, the need for human intervention in correcting these out-of-focus images is decreasing. This allows a more hands-off approach from scientists, and may contribute to more rapid progress in research.
Not only does pairing this optic technology with AI assist when collecting and analyzing data from an individual microscope or other imaging device, but connecting that AI to other AI making the same adjustments on other devices can improve the responsiveness and results for all connected devices.
A much-discussed use of optics and photonics is in the sensors necessary for self-driving cars. This technology is still in its early days, as evidenced by well-publicized crashes of prototype cars.
However, thanks to advances in Light Detection and Radar (LiDAR), a light-based version of radar, as well as AI, self-driving cars are increasingly becoming a real-world possibility.
At the moment, there are two very big hurdles to bringing self-driving cars to the mass market: Safety and cost.
Even though LiDAR and AI are very good at detecting routine dangers such as stop signs and cars that are slowing down in front of the self-driving car, they’re not great at detecting all the unexpected dangers that can happen on the road. As shown by a well-known 2018 incident where a pedestrian was struck and killed, self-driving cars do not yet possess the decision-making capabilities that are necessary in a dynamic situation such as driving in traffic.
LiDAR is also incredibly expensive, making it currently impossible to manufacture on a large scale for the average consumer. As the industry advances and the technology becomes more affordable, this barrier to self-driving cars likely will decrease.
Farming has always been a mixture of science, experience, and conjecture.
Even the most seasoned farmers can’t see into the soil to know how healthy their crops are beneath the surface. Because of this, entire crops can be ruined because something went wrong during the growing season, costing the farmer a great deal of money.
New sensors that use ultraviolet and infrared rays can be focused on a plot of farmland, helping farmers get a peek beneath the soil so they can make adjustments accordingly. Once attached to a drone, the sensor can give a bird’s eye view of the fields.
This sensor can detect whether a crop is properly watered, needs more fertilizer, or may have some disease lurking just out of view. Knowing this information allows the farmer to schedule extra irrigation, add some more fertilizer, or take steps to combat the disease early on, giving the crops a better chance at healthy, trouble-free growth.
The same technology can be applied to already-harvested crops, determining whether there’s deep bruising in vegetables or measuring the sugar and water content inside fruits.
Rapid Disease Screening
Early detection and intervention is key to decreasing the spread of infectious diseases such as the Ebola virus.
The way much disease screening stands now, especially for newly emergent diseases such as COVID-19, samples are collected in the field and then taken to a lab - which can be hundreds of miles from the person being tested - for examination under a microscope or some other form of disease detection. In some cases, results can take days to be returned, further endangering anyone that subject comes into contact with and increasing the spread.
In an effort to speed up the disease detection process, scientists at the Rochester Institute of Technology developed a portable fluorescence-based instrument that can rapidly detect Ebola while in the field.
A droplet of blood is collected from a patient, and that droplet is then analyzed with a laser and fluorometer that’s integrated with a microfluidic chip. Results can be given in 15 minutes from sample collection, and a single device can process 24 samples within 30 minutes.
Scientists hope the technology can be expanded for use to detect other viral strains to broaden its use.
Laser Particle Trapping
Studying cells, molecules, and atoms takes some incredibly high-tech equipment, and the smaller the particles you want to study, the more precise instruments are required.
Laser particle trapping has been used to study larger particles, including cells and whole atoms, but it’s also being integrated into the study of atomic nuclei.
A laser-based optical trap is used to levitate a radioactive nuclear particle where it’s held until the particle decays. Then, the magnitude and frequency of the particle’s recoil is measured in real time. The recoil displacement is used to calculate the kinetic energy of the atomic particles, giving scientists an even better picture of the overall composition of certain types of atomic nuclei.
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