From space, the camera inside the Prova-V satellite can track the growth of plants. Back on Earth, it has another use: finding skin cancer.
Because the camera senses infrared light, it’s able to see details that aren’t visible to the eye. “Our eyes have limited bandwidth, which typically stops at the 1 micron wavelength–anything above that is infrared and we can’t see it,” says Koen van der Zanden from Xenics, the Belgian company that designed the small camera. “But there’s still a lot of light coming from objects. So there’s a lot of information to be detected with infrared.”
On the skin, the camera can see below the surface. “Because the wavelength is a bit longer, infrared light penetrates deeper into the skin, and with the reflected light, you get information back from the skin lying underneath the surface,” says van der Zanden. “With skin cancer, the bad cells are typically not at the surface but a bit deeper.”
For a doctor, the technology could mean a better diagnosis without taking a biopsy and the usual delay of sending a sample to a lab for analysis. “A doctor can give a fast response to the patient, it’s non-invasive, and the equipment, in the end, should be more economic than taking a biopsy,” van der Zanden says.
The technology is ready now, though the company is working through regulatory approval that may take around five years. The new device is one of several possible uses for the camera; another version of the technology can automatically sort through plastic at a recycling plant, separating types that look the same to the naked eye. At a factory making solar panels, the camera can be used to find hidden defects in solar cells.
“We want to transfer the things we’ve learned in space projects to terrestrial applications,” says van der Zanden. Even the camera’s first use, on a satellite, is focused on Earth: As the satellite circles the planet, the camera scans for vegetation.
“Line by line, you build a complete image of the Earth,” says van der Zanden. “If they look at Africa, for example, they can get a complete image of crop growth every two days and compare it to previous years. That allows them to make a very early assessment of when crop growth is behind and when there will be a shortage of food.”
The camera can also be used to monitor deforestation in places like the Amazon, finding small changes that might be more difficult to detect in typical satellite images. “It gives a lot of information for a community to work with,” says van der Zanden. “Infrared, in general, has many fields of application.”