3D laser-scanning is nothing new, but a group of physicists at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland have just announced some notable improvements to the technology. The researchers have developed a new time-of-flight (ToF) 3D camera system that can capture laser pulses from so-called "uncooperative" objects — objects made of up surfaces that don't properly reflect laser light, like fabrics. The new system sweeps a low-power infrared laser rapidly across an object and then records the pixel-by-pixel time between when the beam leaves the camera and returns after bouncing off the object in question. The other big improvement to this scanner is its range — according to the researchers, images precise to the millimeter can be shot from up to one kilometer (or just a bit over a half-mile) away. Eventully, the team hopes that the camera's range will extend ten times as far.
The primary planned usage for this scanner is stationary human-made objects, and it's particularly good at scanning images behind a cluttered foreground (such as foliage). However, the one major flaw in the scanner's design is that it can't render human faces properly — in the test images, faces are distorted and disfigured because human skin doesn't reflect enough of the infrared beams to give a proper depth measurement, while a mannequin's face was scanned far more accurately. That's probably a relief for those concerned with the increasing lack of privacy city-dwellers often deal with.