China's Single-Pixel 3D Imaging May Threaten F-35 Stealth Fighter

China’s development of the world’s first single-pixel 3D imaging camera may soon pose a threat to the stealthiness of the US F-35 joint strike fighter, according to an article in the US-based Chinese-language Duowei News.

Using an emerging technology in which an array of lens-free single-pixel cameras detect backscatter from a projector that shoots known patterns of light at the target, the Shanghai Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics has produced a prototype camera that can quickly decipher the three-dimensional shape of objects.

The camera appears to have advanced prior art in the area of “ghost imaging” by adding a timed laser pulse to help quickly relate the series of 2D images rendered by the single-pixel cameras into accurate 3D renderings.

“It might seem a bit counter-intuitive to think that more information can be captured from a detector which uses just a single pixel rather than the multi-megapixel detectors found in conventional digital cameras,” said Baoqing Sun of the University of Glasgow’s School of Physics and Astronomy. He was lead author of the first study on the use of single-pixel cameras for 3D-imaging which was published this May in the journal Science.

“However, digital camera sensors have a very limited sensitivity beyond the spectrum of visible light, whereas a single-pixel detector can easily be made to capture information far beyond the visible, reaching wavelengths from X-ray to TeraHertz.

“This means that single-pixel detectors which cost just a few pounds each are now capable of producing images across a far wider spectrum than 3D imaging systems currently on the market which cost tens of thousands of pounds.”

They can also be made far smaller and more portable than earlier 3D technology that uses conventional lensed cameras that detect large numbers of pixels. Combined with its ability to use light from a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum, single-pixel imaging can be used for applications ranging from improving hospital X-rays to allowing radar systems to make out the shape of sophisticated stealth planes whose radar-signatures are similar to those of small birds.

China’s exploitation of single-pixel camera technology for air defense systems, therefore, poses a threat to the current and future generations of US stealth fighters and bombers whose effectiveness is based on their virtual invisibility to enemy radar on approach. Among them are the B-2 long-range stealth bomber and the F-22 stealth fighter, as well as the F-35 joint strike fighter.

The half trillion dollars that will ultimately be invested in the F-35 project — the costliest defense procurement program in history — will largely be wasted if radar technology can be enhanced to detect the fighters. The first step China has just taken in single-pixel imaging technology dramatically boosts the possibility that by the time the final production versions of the F-35 take to the air in a few years, it may no longer have its “very low observable” rating.