DARPA’s AWARE Gigapixel camera

We’re used to hearing the word “Megapixel”, but “Gigapixel” still has some novelty. Giga, meaning 1 billion (10^9). That is a crapload of pixels. One thousand megapixels, or equivalent to the pixels of one hundred “normal” digital cameras, or 28 of the new super-high-resolution Nikon D800(E)s.

DARPA’s AWARE-2 as it looks when assembled. The lens peeks out through the hole in the front panel.

In 2003 a software engineer called Max Lyons got media attention when he created a gigapixel image of Bryce canyon by stitching together 196 separate photographs taken with a 6 megapixel digital SLR. The processing took him many, many hours.

Max Lyons, standing next to a print of his 1.09 Gigapixel photo of Bryce Canyon, in 2003

Since 2003, super-high-resolution photographs made by stitching together many smaller photographs have become more general. It is now quite normal to see a 26 Gigapixel image of Paris, or Budapest in 70 Gigapixels. Or even a Gigapixel panorama of the fans at U2’s Cape Town concert.

What all these “Gigapixel cameras” have in common is that they take a non-trivial amount of time to aquire the final image. Therefore they couldn’t really freeze action (although you might be fooled by the look of the U2 fancam, which seems to freeze action. But, looking at how it works, we see that it’s still based on sequential image capture, just like Max Lyons’ photo from 2003.

Now, the journal Nature reports that the US Department of Defense’s research agency (DARPA) shattered records by building a camera that can take a 0.96 gigapixel image in less than a 1/10 of a second! The design allows for future upgade to 2 Gigapixels, at which point diffraction will limit further resolution gains.

The camera, dubbed AWARE-2, is housed in a box of 75 cm X 50 cm X 50 cm – most of which comprises electronic processing and communication equipment. The camera weighs 93kg and captures a 120°x42° field of view, focused through a 6cm ball-shaped lens surrounded by an array of 98 micro-cameras each with a 14-megapixel sensor.

DARPA’s ‘gigagon’ lens (top right) focuses light on 96 camera sensors (bottom left)

An image that shows the contribution made by each sub-camera

DPReview reports that

“… it’s the electronics that currently prevents the camera being made smaller – the optical system accounts for just 3% of the camera’s volume – with the rest of the space taken up by the associated electronics and cooling required to dissipate the 430W expended every time the camera takes an image. With smaller, more efficient electronics, hand-held gigapixel cameras may become an everyday reality, they say.”

As I once wrote in a blog post titled “The Megapixel race to nowhere“, normal photographers don’t really need more resolution per se. But surely DARPA (which generally makes military hardware) has a lot of special use-cases where this amount of resolution can come in very handy indeed…

A gigapixel image from DARPA’s AWARE-2 contains incredible amounts of detail, as revealed by these two zoomed-in regions