Startup’s Thermal Imaging and AR System for Firefighters Joins the COVID-19 Fight

Longan Vision’s two-camera system has been adapted to do temperature checks of people in public spaces

5 min read
Photograph of a firefighter with the Longan Vision FVS augmented-reality visor with simulated thermal imaging to help firefighters see through smoke.
Photo-illustration: Longan Vision

Photograph of a firefighter with the Longan Vision FVS augmented-reality visor showing thermal imagingAn illustration of a firefighter wearing Longan Vision’s AR visor with thermal imaging cameras over his helmet. The Fusion Vision System allows the first responder to see through smoke, locate victims, and find the source of the fire.Photo-illustraiton: Longan Vision

THE INSTITUTE Before the coronavirus pandemic hit Canada, Enzo Jia was busy developing the Fusion Vision System, an augmented-reality (AR) visor with thermal imaging to help firefighters see through smoke.

“I always wanted to design something to help humans enhance their vision and also to see something they cannot with the naked eye,” Jia told The Institute in March. He is chief executive of Longan Vision, a startup he helped found. “I really want to help firefighters and first responders enhance their vision by using AR technologies.”

The startup, based in Hamilton, Ont., was named a 2020 IEEE Entrepreneurship Star at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, held in January. The program recognizes early-stage companies that have the potential of bringing to market engineering-driven innovations in IEEE’s field of interest. Along with the recognition, awardees get a free year of IEEE membership.

In the months before the pandemic, the company had developed a prototype of its Fusion Vision System and had demonstrated it to several fire departments.

When COVID-19 began spreading throughout Canada, Jia and his colleagues realized they could use some of the same technologies to combat the spread of the virus, so they began a side project. To detect a high body temperature, which is a common symptom of COVID-19, the startup used components from the visor to build Gatekeeper, a thermal-imaging system. Gatekeeper can be mounted on a wall or tripod to measure body temperature of up to five people at once.

Several units have been installed in long-term-care facilities, grocery stores, and universities, Jia says.

AR VISORS

Jia, a mechanical engineer, says he has been a fan of AR technology for some time. His undergraduate capstone project at McMaster University, in Hamilton, was about how AR could be used in vehicle head-up displays. Such displays, which already exist in some vehicles, can project information on the windshield, including navigation instructions, speed limit, and mileage.

Jia, who earned a bachelor’s degree in automotive engineering technology, was a member of the university’s IEEE student branch. He later earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the school.

He launched Longan in 2018 with five colleagues shortly after graduating. At first, the job wasn’t full time. To get business experience under his belt as well as an understanding of how to manufacture products, he worked as a mechanical engineer for material-handling-equipment company Skyjack and automotive supplier Magna.

Today he works full time for Longan, which has five other full-time employees and two interns.

His initial idea was to develop AR glasses that integrated thermal imaging for industrial applications, such as Google Glass and Microsoft HoloLens. The company changed direction after several fires in Ontario caused major losses of life and property.

“In some of these incidents, firefighters lost their lives saving people while the building was collapsing around them,” Jia says. “They needed to fight not only the fire but also [a lack of] time. Additionally, they needed to overcome obstacles, like lack of communication and terrible visibility. Their bravery inspired me.”

Today’s firefighters use outdated technology, he says. He compares their equipment to cellphones of the past—which offered only basic features such as calling and texting. He wants to give first responders commercially available smart technologies to “jump-start them to the next generation of technology,” he says.

“We are developing a solution,” he says, “to try and address all three of these pain points: poor visibility, communication, and data.”

The Longan Vision FVS augmented-reality visorPhoto: Longan Vision

The visor [above] uses mixed-reality technology: AR and thermal imaging. A temperature sensor identifies the location of the fire. The headset allows firefighters to stream live video to a central command terminal so other responders can learn details about the structure and determine how to fight the blaze.

“In a smoky building, you can’t see with the human eye,” Jia says. “Our technology can actually see through the smoke. It can give firefighters super vision, tell them where there’s a victim and where they can go past an object without bumping into it.

“I believe our product with AR technology could help them prevent casualties, boost their efficiency, and send our heroes back to their families.”

The images can be saved and reviewed later for training or for investigations by insurance companies. Longan Vision also plans to collect the data to create predictive models for firefighters, Jia says.

The visor is compatible with many styles of firefighter helmets including models used in Asia, Europe, and the United States. Jia says there currently aren’t any other smart visors for firefighter helmets on the market.

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES

As with any startup, the biggest hurdle has been a lack of funding for product research, design, development, and hiring experienced workers, Jia says.

“In general,” he says, “no budget means no progress, and no progress means death to a startup.”

The company began presenting its work at conferences and participating in startup competitions including those held by the IEEE Entrepreneurship initiative.

Jia says those activities helped bring visibility to the company and attract investors. The founders also developed a business plan and began hiring experienced engineers “who have the passion” and are “willing to grow with the company,” he says.

The first round of seed funding closed in July 2019. The company won contracts worth more than US $300,000, which went toward development, Jia says. One investor is Innovation Solutions Canada, which helps fund the country’s startups.

MULTIPERSON TEMPERATURE CHECK

When The Institute spoke with Jia in July to see how the company was faring during the pandemic, he told us about Gatekeeper. In addition to AR and thermal-imaging technology, it also uses a facial-recognition system.

Left, photo of the Gatekeeper camera system, right, a scan showing thermal readings.The Gatekeeper measurement component (left) monitors the calibrated temperature of an area. The Gatekeeper camera component (right) scans individuals who cross its path and produces a visual image of each person and displays the individual’s temperature.Photos: Longan Vision

Jia worked with McMaster’s business incubator program, The Forge, on that detection system, which uses two thermal-imaging tools to get accurate temperature readings. The Gatekeeper measurement component monitors the calibrated temperature of an area. The Gatekeeper camera component (GCC) scans individuals who cross its path.

The gathered data is sent to a computer that has a built-in image-processing program, which looks for variances between the two feeds. Information from the GCC produces a visual image of each person and displays a message on the screen identifying each individual’s temperature. Should an elevated temperature be detected, the individual can be asked to return home or seek medical attention.

Jia says his system is less expensive than others on the market because Gatekeeper uses off-the-shelf components.

STAR TREATMENT

Jia says he was humbled to receive the IEEE entrepreneurship recognition, which he says has opened up many doors.

“It’s a big honor to be named an IEEE Entrepreneurship Star. It gives us a really big thumbs-up,” he says. “Receiving the award is also helping us on the development side. Being part of IEEE’s communities means we can actually expand our network and access potential investors and technologies that we can integrate into our [visor] system.”

Another benefit that comes with the recognition is a free subscription to the IEEE Xplore Digital Library—which Jia says he is thrilled about. He says much of his master’s thesis was based on research he found in the library.

“We need access to papers,” he says. “That means a lot to us, to be honest. We can use the IEEE community to share our research findings on thermal imaging, AR and how it helps first responders.”

This article appears in the December 2020 print issue as “Firefighters’ Thermal Imaging System Repurposed for COVID-19 Fever.”

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
Vertical
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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