From seeing a single leaf from space to watching events in a quintillionth of a second, technology is throwing open the realm of the visible. FEATURE
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From seeing a single leaf from space to watching events in a quintillionth of a second, technology is throwing open the realm of the visible.

"I've seen things you people would not believe," Roy Batty, the android in the 1982 movie Blade Runner said. But in 2017, two years before the film's fictional setting, technology is letting mere mortals see things far beyond even Batty's android dreams.

Take the doctors working on Bligh Street in Sydney, Australia, for instance. Their job is to check emergency radiology cases from patients who are more than 10,000 miles away, in the United Kingdom and Scandinavia.

Their employer, Telemedicine Clinic, uses network-based systems to help hospitals in Europe review overnight scans. The hospitals send their scans to Telemedicine Clinic's Sydney doctors, who find out what is wrong without ever seeing a patient. 

"What we do is really a marvel of technology," says Henrik Agrell, one of Telemedicine Clinic's founders. "Our people are helping to better treat patients at a distance and on a scale that you could not have dreamed of 50 years ago."

Yet even this life-saving technology sounds simplistic compared to future possibilities.

Spotting problems on earth from space

Gabrielle Thomas, a postdoctoral research associate at Max Born Institute, Berlin, and academic visitor at Imperial College, London, uses visual technology to spot problems in plants. But she does it way beyond the other side of the world. Thomas uses satellites from outer space.

Her laser-based remote sensing system should be able to look down from a satellite and distinguish objects just 15 centimeters wide. That's roughly on the scale of a single leaf.

The laser won't just view things the way you and I do, but will be able to tune into parts of the spectrum that humans cannot see, to spot signs of ill health. "We can not only see the plant, but tell how healthy it is," says Thomas.

It turns out the basis for these lasers has been known since 1978. They are made from a mineral called alexandrite. But until not long ago the lasers were primed with large flashlamps, which made the system too heavy and inefficient to go into space.

"You could need up to a five-square-meter room to house the laser," Thomas says.

With the advent of laser displays, though, Thomas and her team found a way of cutting the alexandrite lasers down to a size that could fit in your hand and was 10 times more efficient.

Although the system is still a long ways away from going onto a satellite, the Imperial College team is looking to put it through space compliancy testing. "If it passes all the tests then you could possibly see it going on a mini-satellite within the next 10 years," says Thomas.

Seeing single branches instead of whole trees could help tree experts look out for signs of disease before an entire plant succumbs. The experts could then save the tree before it dies. At some point, the laser systems might even be used to track wildlife or scan for forest fires.

The tricky part is to put the laser on a satellite. But for many uses you might not need to send the system into space.

Thomas says: "While we already have remote sensing of oil rigs and gas pipelines, within five to 10 years we will see mass deployment of lasers for this purpose, on strategic posts or drones, so you'll very quickly be able to see if you've got a leak, in real time."

Remote sensing for farms

Remote sensing is already a big part of precision agriculture, which aims to make use of technology to help improve crops down to the level of single plants.

Today, for instance, farmers can buy spectrometers, which measure spectrums of light and color, small enough to be mounted on drones. This allows farmers to identify parts of the spectrum invisible to the naked eye.

Other research is showing us things that are too small or too fast for our senses. Take attosecond science, which uses superfast lasers. Thomas is working withTobias Witting, for more groundbreaking advances in technology.

This is about viewing events that happen on the scale of single electrons, within a quintillionth of a second. "Attosecond laser pulses are the fastest man-made events in history," says Witting in a video for the World Economic Forum.

"The frontier of imaging is also the frontier of science and multiple disciplines. Ultimately, this fundamental understanding will lead to improved machines for light harvesting, the understanding of radiation damage, and might also have an impact on future optical computing."

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About Jason Deign @DeigninSpain

Jason Deign is a Barcelona-based business writer, journalist and author.