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A new camera can photograph you from almost 28 miles away

Long-distance photography on Earth is a tricky challenge. Capturing enough light from a subject at great distances is not easy. And even then, the atmosphere introduces distortions that can ruin the image; so does pollution, which is a particular problem in cities. That makes it hard to get any kind of image beyond a distance of a few kilometers or so (assuming the camera is mounted high enough off the ground to cope with Earth’s curvature).

But in recent years, researchers have begun to exploit sensitive photodetectors to do much better. These detectors are so sensitive they can pick up single photons and use them to piece together images of subjects up to 10 kilometers (six miles) away.

Nevertheless, physicists would love to improve even more. And today, Zheng-Ping Li and colleagues from the University of Science and Technology of China in Shanghai show how to photograph subjects up to 45 km (28 miles) away in a smog-plagued urban environment. Their technique uses single-photon detectors combined with a unique computational imaging algorithm that achieves super-high-resolution images by knitting together the sparsest of data points.

The new technique is relatively straightforward in principle. It is based on laser ranging and detection, or lidar—illuminating the subject with laser light and then creating an image from reflected light.

The big advantage of this kind of active imaging is that the photons reflected from the subject return to the detector within a specific time window that depends on the distance. So any photons that arrive outside this window can be ignored.

This “gating” dramatically reduces the noise created by unwanted photons from elsewhere in the environment. And it allows lidar systems to be highly sensitive and distance specific.

To make the new system even better in urban environments, Zheng-Ping and co use an infrared laser with a wavelength of 1550 nanometers, a repetition rate of 100 kilohertz,  and a modest power of 120 milliwatts. This wavelength makes the system eye-safe and allows the team to filter out solar photons that would otherwise overwhelm the detector.

The researchers send and receive these photons through the same optical apparatus—an ordinary astronomical telescope with an aperture of 280 mm. The reflected photons are then detected by a commercial single-photon detector. To create an image, the researchers scan the field of view using a piezo-controlled mirror that can tilt up, down, and side to side.

In this way, they can create two-dimensional images. But by changing the gating timings, they can pick up photons reflected from different distances to build a 3D image.

The final advance the team has made is to develop an algorithm that knits an image together using the single-photon data. This kind of computational imaging has advanced in leaps and bounds in recent years, allowing researchers to create images from relatively small sets of data.

The results speak for themselves. The team set up the new camera 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 km away.