You can cover yourself from head to toe in fatigues or dark clothing, but it’s nearly impossible to hide from a thermal camera that can see the invisible infrared radiation your body emits. Or is it? Researchers from the University of San Diego have created a new kind of thermal camouflage that can make the wearer nearly invisible to infrared cameras by matching and quickly adjusting to the surrounding ambient temperature.
Point a thermal camera at your hand and it will be revealed as a generic yellow blob, devoid of detail, because your skin is emitting infrared radiation uniformly across its surface. Freckles, hairs, moles all disappear, but it’s one of the reasons thermal cameras are so effective at spotting people at night (like suspects running from the police) because of the stark contrast between the cooler environment and the warm target.
Thermal cameras are less effective in the day, particularly in warmer environments, when everything in frame is all a similar temperature and tends to blend together. This new approach to camouflage takes advantage of infrared imaging’s inherent weakness.
Developed by researchers at the University of San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering, the camouflage, which only exists as a limited prototype and proof-of-concept, has been integrated into a wearable cuff that’s made from a wax-like phase-changing material. The surface of the cuff is able quickly warm up or cool down to match the temperature of the environment, taking less than a minute to go from 10 to 38 degrees Celsius. But no matter what the temperature on the outside is, the inside of the material remains at the same temperature as human skin, so it’s comfortable to wear no matter the environment.
As the video demonstrates, when viewed through a thermal camera such as devices from FLIR, the colour of the wearable cuff (which indicates its temperature) remains the same as the environment around it, even as external temperatures are rising and falling. This clip shows the phase-change material doing its thing in high speed, but at normal rates it would be able to match pace with temperature fluctuations in the natural environment.
The next step for researchers is implementing this technology on a larger scale—or at least large enough to cover an entire person. The team is working toward creating an entire jacket with the thermal camouflage built in, but also making it comfortable and practical to wear. With the current technology, a jacket would weigh just shy of five pounds, be about five millimetres thick, and would only work for about an hour. So there’s lots of room for improvement. But based on every episode of Cops ever aired, even in its current form the technology would undoubtedly be embraced by anyone planning to rob a Fort Worth gas station at night.