A new study explains the science behind microscale concave interfaces, structures that reflect light to produce beautiful and potentially useful optical phenomena.
“It is vital to be able to explain how a technology works to someone before you attempt to adopt it. Our new paper defines how light interacts with microscale concave interfaces,” says engineering researcher Qiaoqiang Gan, who notes that future applications of these effects could include helping autonomous vehicles recognize traffic signs.
The research appears in the journal Applied Materials Today.
Gan, professor of electrical engineering in the University at Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, led the study, which focuses on a retroreflective material—a thin film that consists of polymer microspheres laid down on the sticky side of a transparent tape. The microspheres are partially embedded in tape, and the parts that protrude form microscale concave interfaces, or MCIs.
White light shining on this film is reflected in a way that causes the light to create concentric rainbow rings, the new paper reports. Alternately, hitting the material with a single-colored laser (red, green, or blue, in the case of this study) generates a pattern of bright and dark rings. Reflections from infrared lasers also produced distinctive signals consisting of concentric rings.
The research describes these effects in detail, and reports on experiments that used the thin film in a stop sign. The patterns formed by the material showed up clearly on both a visual camera that detects visible light, and a LIDAR (laser imaging, detection, and ranging) camera that detects infrared signals, says co-first author of the study Jacob Rada, a PhD student in electrical engineering.
“Currently, autopilot systems face many challenges in recognizing traffic signs, especially in real-world conditions,” Gan says. “Smart traffic signs made from our material could provide more signals for future systems that use LIDAR and visible pattern recognition together to identify important traffic signs. This may be helpful to improve the traffic safety for autonomous cars.”
“We demonstrated a new combined strategy to enhance the LIDAR signal and visible pattern recognition that are currently performed by both visible and infrared cameras,” Rada says. “Our work showed that the MCI is an ideal target for LIDAR cameras, due to the constantly strong signals that are produced.”
A US patent for the retroreflective material has been issued, as well as a counterpart in China, with Fudan University and the University at Buffalo as the patent-holders. The technology is available for licensing.
Gan says future plans include testing the film using different wavelengths of light, and different materials for the microspheres, with the goal of enhancing performance for possible applications such as traffic signs designed for future autonomous systems.
Additional coauthors of the study are from Fudan University, the University at Buffalo, Texas Tech University, Hubei University, and the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology. A grant from the US National Science Foundation partially funded the work.
Source: University at Buffalo