MIT researchers devise see-through-wall technology
MIT researchers Gregory Charvat, left, and John Peabody have devised radar technology that can "see" through walls.
October 18th, 2011
05:10 PM ET

MIT researchers devise see-through-wall technology

Through the use of microwaves, MIT researchers have devised technology to see through walls in real time.

The radar array system, created by Gregory Charvat and John Peabody at the university's Lincoln Laboratory, sends microwave signals that bounce off objects and ultimately return radar images to a screen. The waves can even penetrate concrete walls.

Charvat said Tuesday that the project has been in the works for a while.

“It originally started out as my dissertation, where I developed a very slow prototype,” he said. “When I moved to Lincoln Lab, I teamed up with another colleague (Peabody) who was working with technology used for imaging human tissue” in medical environments such as hospitals.

Almost all of the microwaves - 99.4% - bounce off the first object they encounter, like a wall, while only 0.6% make it through to the object on the other side, creating an admittedly weak signal, Charvat said.

X-ray would be perfect for this application, but "it's ionizing radiation," too dangerous, he said. "We use microwave technology that’s about as powerful as a cellular phone, so it’s very weak. So, microwaves work. It’s not ideal, but it gets the job done."

The system creates a real-time image at the speed of 10.8 frames a second, according to the MIT website.

But the system has its limits. It can penetrate only a little more than half a foot.

“Eight inches is all we’ve been able to do,” Charvat said. Visibility “may be able to be increased by more transit power or lowering the frequency. The lower you go in frequency, the better it is, but it becomes a resolution issue."

But the technology could be a boon for the military, he said. "It can basically tell if there may be a threat inside of a building without having to go inside there. It’s for increasing the situational awareness of the urban war fighter."

But privacy advocates say that is exactly why they are wary of it.

Kade Crockford, privacy rights coordinator for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said she was "extremely concerned" about technology that could make spying easier, especially with the inevitable application of its use against an urban populace.

ACLU of Massachusetts spokesman Chris Ott, in an e-mail, referenced the use of military technology being potentially co-opted for use against civilians as an increasing threat to liberty.

“Technology is developing at a rate that far surpasses Congress’ ability or willingness to adapt our laws to ensure that ordinary people are protected from the vast new powers these tools provide to the government," Crockford said. "This is an alarming trend, and this case is a perfect example of it. We urge lawmakers to get ahead of the curve to protect our privacy before it is too late.”

Charvat, for his part, said he didn't see any other application for the system other than military. “I can’t really think of any civilian use. Maybe it could be used in reconnaissance robots, for navigation for them, but it would be a totally different application.”

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Filed under: Technology • U.S.
soundoff (49 Responses)
  1. tinsley

    wont it cook the people ? microwaves are for taters. not walls.

    October 18, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
  2. alesha

    I agree with you. This sounds dangerous to the people inside the building. What if there are young children inside?

    October 18, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
  3. bobcat2u.

    Don't they already have this technology using infra-red ?

    October 18, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Bimbo the Birthday Clown

    Put on your foil hats.

    October 18, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Mad Ole Lady

    "Big Brother" is really watching you. Kinda invading ones privacy and creepy if in wrong hands.
    And getting crispy and well done not so appetizing either.

    October 18, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Mmmmm

    Oh-oh my pacemaker stop working...

    October 18, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Scottish Mama

    I thought they had already conveyed to the public that microwaves were dangerous to the public. If they use this in combat, I think it will be the same as using agent orange on our military. Many years from now they will find it causes cancer, like agent orange gave our vets diabeties. And in desert storm there was a vacine that caused the boys in the military to have trouble conceiving and have skin rashes. You never really hear what happened to those vets. Story line for CNN?

    October 18, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
  8. leeintulsa

    So the aclu is ok now?

    October 18, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Scottish Mama

    Okay the one guy looks like Gilligan.

    October 18, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bimbo the Birthday Clown

      And the other guy is a young Bob Hoskins.

      October 18, 2011 at 11:55 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Mmmmm

    i guess i'm gonna lined my walls with popcorn kernels to detect any scanner activity...

    October 18, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Report abuse |
  11. banasy©

    No, I'm not going to put on a foil hat! Do you know what happens when you put foil in a microwave?

    October 18, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Report abuse |
  12. plainreviews

    Microwaves are not even bad for cooking food. It just cooks it in a different way like BBQing and frying are different ways of cooking food. If you want good recipes to cook food in the microwave and lose weight. Check out this recipe book.

    October 18, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Report abuse |
  13. RUFFNUTT (kcmo resident and smoker of fine purple kush)

    i can't wait till i get to test this on the girl's locker room

    October 18, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Scottish Mama

    Ruffie- Always a thinkin man.

    October 18, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
  15. R. Oliver Radiko

    Cable Installers, electricians and plumbers can really use this type of device to see what's already running through or installed within the walls, ceilings and floors.

    October 18, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
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