- Researchers from the University of California San Diego and the National University of Singapore have created a wearable device that can mask someone from thermal cameras.
- Although the device is still in early stages, it could eventually scale to the size of a full jacket, which could be useful in surveillance and military applications.
- Their work was published in the scientific journal Advanced Functional Materials earlier this year.
It's nearly impossible to mask yourself from thermal vision. It gives anyone on the pursuit a distinct visual edge, whether you're a modern police force tracking criminals or an alien predator hunting Arnold Schwarzenegger. Because in the end, we all radiate body heat.
But researchers from the University of California-San Diego and the National University of Singapore have created a device that the Austrian Oak would've loved to have—wearable thermal camo.
The device doesn't make you invisible, instead it changes its temperature to match the surrounding ambient temperature while keeping you comfortable, fooling thermal sensors by blending your thermal signature into the ambient environment.
"While the environmental temperature is changing, it's different from our skin temperature and a person can be easily detected on a thermal camera, which relies on a temperature difference," Renkun Chen, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UC-San Diego, tells Popular Mechanics. "If we create a different perceived temperature on the skin, it becomes invisible from the camera."
In the demonstration above, as the background temperature changes from about 16 degrees Celsius to 38 degrees Celsius, the device begins to match the environmental temperature, obscuring four square inches of the wearer's arm. This camera illusion is grounded in thermal management strategies, meaning researchers found a way to control temperature using technology.
Here's how it works: The wearable features a surface that can quickly cool down or heat up to match the wearer's body heat to the ambient temperature. Currently, the device can go from 10 to 38 degrees Celsius (about 50 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit) in less than one minute.
The outside surface of the wearable is composed of a flexible thermoelectric device, which is thin enough to stitch into clothing. The device, embedded within two sheets of elastomer (a pliable plastic), uses electricity to create a change in temperature, and it's all powered by battery and a wireless circuit board.
To keep the wearer comfortable, the inside of the wearable features a phase-changing material that is similar to wax, but that has been enhanced in the lab. Sandwiched between the layers of elastomer, the phase-changing material serves as a buffer between the skin and the environment. That way, as the device heats up or cools down to match the environmental temperature, the wearer doesn't feel burning or cooling sensations.
Chen explains that if the environmental temperature is higher than the material's melting point, it will melt and absorb heat to match that temperature, cloaking the wearer from thermal cameras. If the ambient air is cooler, the material will solidify, insulating the wearer on the inside but matching the surrounding temperature on the outside. Chen says the researchers chose this particular phase-changing material due to its melting point, 30 degrees Celsius, which is close to the surface temperature of human skin.
And yes, this lab-created wax is much more effective than mud, Schwarzenegger's camo of choice when hiding from the Predator's thermal gaze.
"Natural mud is typically 'black' in the infrared spectrum, so it is a good thermal emitter to radiate the heat from the body," he says. In other words, you might hide for a minute or two, but that mud would warm up pretty quickly.
For now, the wearable is little more than a proof-of-concept, but the eventual idea is to create a thermal camouflage suit. To do that, the wearable will have to be scaled up into something like a jacket, Chen says. But such a thermally invisible garment would weigh nearly five pounds and only operate for about an hour, so Chen's team is working on lighter, thinner materials for the garment.
There is still one big problem with this whole thermal disappearing act. Humans have a tendency to breathe, and the temperature of the air that we exhale is typically warmer than our surrounding environment. The team hasn't quite figured out how to solve that problem, Chen says, but figures a temperature-regulating filter or face mask using the same underlying tech should do the trick
Looks like the Predator's days are numbered.
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