MIT thermal imaging system captures energy loss in buildings, cities

New technology developed by MIT researchers streamlines the process of energy audits, allowing for thermal image scans of large groups of buildings and entire cities.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

New technology developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology promises to streamline the process of energy audits, allowing for thermal scans of large groups of buildings and entire cities.

The technique employs a vehicle with automated cameras -- kind of like the one that Google uses for "Street View" for its Maps service -- that takes thermal infrared images of buildings around it.

The idea: identify the buildings that are most inefficient by detecting heat escaping through walls, roofs, doors and windows. The photos allow for quantitative comparisons of the rate of heat loss, which makes it a quicker process to engage in remediation efforts at the worst buildings.

That's important because efficiency spending can then be optimized to focus on the worst offenders, instead of offering a blanket mandate that everyone make a certain upgrade. (Plus, many existing programs don't distinguish the value of different fixes -- so a $2,000 tax credit best used for new windows and insulation may not always materialize that way.)

The tech was developed by researchers Long Phan and Jonathan Jesneck and led by professor Sanjay Sarma, and was originally intended to scan the entire city of Cambridge -- MIT's hometown -- and the Fort Drum army installation in New York.

In a statement, Phan describes the approach as "a non-invasive, high throughput remote energy diagnostics system" -- important because conventional home audits are time-consuming.

Here's how it works:

  • First, the team photographs buildings with the system, which captures high-resolution, long wave infrared images using an inexpensive, low-resolution camera.
  • The "secret sauce" is a cost-reducing thermal imaging technology called "Kinetic Super Resolution,” which uses a computer to combine multiple images taken with an inexpensive low-resolution IR camera to produce a high-resolution mosaic image.
  • Software translates those images into an estimate of the costs of making improvements, and the return-on-investment that would be achieved by doing so. (At the researchers' disposal: a database from Green Guild.)

The project fits into a Boston plan announced last year to be the greenest city in the world. Obviously, you need to know what you're working with before you start tackling retrofits.

The team presented a summary of their work at the MIT Energy Conference on March 5.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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