Researchers develop portable hyperspectral camera for imaging, research applications

Rice University engineers are building a portable hyperspectral camera, Tunable Light-Guide Image Processing Snapshot Spectrometer (TuLIPSS), which allows researchers to instantly capture data across the visible and near-infrared spectrum.

By Mike Williams May 24, 2019

To reveal details impossible to observe with the naked eye, Rice University engineers are building a portable spectrometer that can be mounted on a small satellite, flown on an airplane or a drone or someday even held in the hand.

Bioengineer Tomasz Tkaczyk and his colleagues at Rice’s Brown School of Engineering and Wiess School of Natural Sciences have published the first results from a NASA-funded project to develop a small, sophisticated spectrometer with unusual versatility.

A spectrometer is an instrument that gathers light from an object or a scene, separates the colors and quantifies them to determine the chemical contents or other characteristics of what it sees.

The Rice device, called the Tunable Light-Guide Image Processing Snapshot Spectrometer (TuLIPSS), will let researchers instantly capture data across the visible and near-infrared spectrum, unlike current systems that scan a scene line-by-line and for later reassembly. Each pixel in the hyperspectral images produced by TuLIPSS contains either spectral or spatial information. The “pixels” in this case are thousands of optical fibers, flexible light guides that deliver the image components to a detector. Because they can reposition the fibers, researchers can customize the balance of image and spectral data sent to the detector.

Researchers Tomasz Tkaczyk and Ye Wang, who earned her doctorate this year at Rice University, led the development of a portable spectrometer able to capture far more data much quicker than other fiber-based systems. The TuLIPSS camera will be useful for quick analysis of environmental and biological data. Courtesy: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University[/caption]

In the current prototype, these fibers collect more than 30,000 spatial samples and 61 spectral channels in the 450-to-750 nm range – essentially, hundreds of thousands of data points – split by prisms into their component bands and passed on to a detector. The detector then feeds these data points to software that recombines them into the desired images or spectra.

The fiber array is tightly packed at the input and rearranged into individually addressable rows at the output, with gaps between them to avoid overlap. Spacing the rows allows researchers to tune spatial and spectral sampling for specific applications, Tkaczyk said.

Ye Wang and her colleagues painstakingly built the prototype, assembling and positioning the fiber bundles by hand. They used scenes in and around Rice to test it, reconstructing images of buildings to fine-tune TuLIPSS and taking spectral images of campus trees to “detect” their species. They also successfully analyzed the health of various plants with spectral data alone.

Continuous capture images of moving traffic in the Houston neighborhood around Rice University shows how the TuLIPSS spectrometer filters motion blur in dynamic situations. The full-color video is a composite of the filtered spectral data captured by the device. The portable spectrometer has proven its ability to capture far more data much quicker than other fiber-based systems. Courtesy: Modern Optical Instrumentation and Bio-Imaging Laboratory, Rice University

Continuous capture images of moving traffic in Houston showed the system’s ability to see which spectra are shifting over time (such as moving vehicles and changing traffic lights) and which are stable (everything else). The experiment was a useful proof-of-concept to show how well the spectrometer could filter motion blur in dynamic situations.

David Alexander, a professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Rice Space Institute, said the researchers have begun discussions with the city of Houston and Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research about testing TuLIPSS in aerial studies of the city.

“Since we need to test TuLIPSS anyway, we want to do something useful,” he said, suggesting a hyperspectral map of the city could reveal how the urban landscape is changing, distinguish buildings from parks or map sources of pollen. “In principle, regular flights over the city will allow us to map out the changing conditions and identify areas that need attention.”

Tkaczyk suggested future versions of TuLIPSS will be useful for agricultural and atmospheric analysis, algae blooms and other environmental conditions where quick data acquisition will be valuable.

“The real challenge has been to decide what to focus on first,” Alexander said. “Ultimately, we want to be successful enough that the next phase of development pushes us closer to flying TuLIPSS in space.”

Rice University

– Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, See more Control Engineering machine vision stories.

Author Bio: Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.