Campus News
Published: 7 September, 2011

Surveillance technology to unleash our own superheroes

It reads like the archetypal plot from a superhero comic book -- a mother cries outside a burning building, her small child lost inside with no way to find the child. Then Superman swoops in and, using his x-ray vision, saves the child and their dog from a fiery death.

While military and search-and-rescue teams have long wished for such x-ray vision, the work of Professor Abdesselam (Salim) Bouzerdoum on imaging systems allowing people to see through walls may soon place this dream within reach.

Professor Bouzerdoum, from the School of Electrical, Computer and Telecommunications Engineering at the University of Wollongong, is leading the way in developing through-the-wall radar imaging (TWRI) systems that can ‘see' objects behind walls, doors and other opaque materials.

For his research, which has a wide range of military, security and search-and rescue applications, Professor Bouzerdoum last night (6 September) won the 2011 Eureka Prize ($10,000) for Outstanding Science in Support of Defence or National Security.

The prize is part of the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, the most prestigious awards in Australian science. The winners were announced last night at a star-studded evening at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion for the country's most inspired minds and broadcast live on ABC-TV.

‘The Eurekas', as they are fondly known, have become the most coveted science awards in this country. Every scientist knows a ‘eureka’moment comes after decades of singular dedication, deep inquiry and rich collaboration. Receiving an Australian Museum Eureka Prize is regarded as a pinnacle achievement for any Australian scientist.

"Developing a reliable through-the-wall surveillance capability will prove invaluable to law enforcement, search-and-rescue, security and counter-terrorism agencies," according to the Director of the Australian Museum, Frank Howarth.

"The work of Professor Bouzerdoum has removed many of the technical challenges that have stopped these ‘x-ray' systems from becoming a reality and his group is one of the few worldwide with the capacity to lead this research into the future."

There are many situations when it is important to detect the presence of someone hidden inside a closed building and to know their precise location and movements.

Over the past five years Professor Bouzerdoum's research has transformed the technology required to provide reliable see-through-wall imaging, notably through his innovative work to reduce interference from wall reflections. This is considered a major breakthrough in the field because many existing image formation techniques require a prior knowledge of the scene being examined, so that so-called background clutter can be removed -- something which is not feasible in real-life situations.

His work on ‘compressed sensing', which requires fewer measurements to ‘reconstruct a scene', has also led to improved image quality and faster data acquisition. At present, he is focusing on developing advanced signal-processing techniques to extend the operational range and sensitivity of TWRI systems.

This is expected to lead to the design of a low-cost, portable TWRI system that supports real-time target detection and tracking, high-resolution 3D imaging, removal of background clutter and automatic target recognition.

There is considerable interest worldwide for imaging systems that can ‘see through walls'. Professor Bouzerdoum's research is positioning Australia among the leading nations in this technology. His research will enhance the capability of our defence and counter-terrorism organisations, and lead to a much-welcomed resource for law enforcement and search-and-rescue personnel. Most importantly, it will ultimately save lives.

Seventy-nine finalists were brought together from around the country, competing for more than $240 000 in prize money.

“The ‘Oscars of Australian Science’ continue to spread the news of Australia’s scientific successes,” Mr Howarth said.

Published: 7 September, 2011

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