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Where there’s smoke, there’s photonics

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DANIEL MCCARTHY, SENIOR EDITORNo silver lining will ever be enough to compensate for the lives and livelihoods lost to COVID-19. There was, however, one positive indicator for the scale of the global pandemic: Diminished travel and commute times between March and July prompted a 13% drop in fine-particle pollution compared to the same period in 2019. Pollution levels dropped again in November and December, according to IQAir’s annual World Air Quality Report.

Yet, ever reluctant to spare any good news, the year 2020 also brought record-breaking wildfires to the Western U.S. In addition to blackening millions of acres, the fires drove the U.S. annual average for the deadliest type of air pollution up by almost 7% versus all of 2019, according to the report. In effect, the wildfires made ash of the country’s pandemic-related clean air gains.

Scientists have blamed climate change, in part, for the West’s ever-expanding wildfire seasons, which suggests the dark cloud of the 2020 wildfires may only expand in the years ahead. But it also underscores the valuable role that photonics will play in minimizing the impact of wildfires before, during, and after the burn.

In this month’s cover story on environmental monitoring, James Schlett surveys the spectrum of imaging and other optical technologies that scientists and U.S. Forest Service officials are leveraging to spot fires earlier and contain them before they spread. Spotting wildfires is by no means a new application for photonics. But the component technologies continue to advance and integrate better to prompt earlier and more coordinated action. Schlett’s feature appears here.

One of the key themes of the research driving these advancements is the prerequisite collaboration between industry, government, and academia, and the subsequent benefits all stakeholders receive. This theme echoes through several other features in this month’s issue.

In this feature article, G. Scott Libonate from JENOPTIK describes the continuing reductionsin the size, weight, and power (SWaP) of photonic gear used in soldier systems and aerial platforms. Hank Hogan surveys the directed-energy weapon systems used for defense. And here, Markus Tarin of MoviTHERM updates readers on thermal imaging technology as its application expands beyond defense to benefit users in the commercial sector.

Contributions from government, industry, and academia are all essential to the advancement of photonics technology, and all can reap its rewards.

Photonics Spectra
Apr 2021

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