Similar to the van-mounted cameras that take street view photos for Google Maps, a mobile infrared system built by researchers at the Masschusetts Institute of Technology takes thermal pictures of buildings in order to quantify their energy leaks. The designers hope that making efficiency a more concrete, numerical concept will lead to more targeted energy-saving plans. This approach would be better, for example, than simply providing tax incentives to every consumer, who may or may not need them, with no real way to measure improvements.

The MIT team, lead by Sanjay Sarma of the Field Intelligence Lab, has already made a thermal map of the entire city of Cambridge, which they did at night in the winter, in order to best see heat escaping from buildings.

In action, the cameras and resulting images look like this:

High-resolution far-infrared cameras — the type that would be ideal for such an undertaking — unfortunately run around $40,000. To get around the high cost, the team developed a (patent-pending) computer-based method called "Kinetic Super Resolution" to combine many images from cheaper low-resolution cameras into a higher resolution picture. NASA does something similar when imaging pictures taken by robots in extraterrestrial locales.

Forthcoming is software that will translate the thermal images into data about energy efficiency specifics, such as cost-estimates for improvements and the returns on making them. Home energy audits, which can be lengthy and expensive, typically pinpoint sites that need improvement but do not offer suggestions about the potential costs and benefits of addressing them.

Besides just helping the average consumer, this tech could benefit larger groups, businesses and cities that want to save energy and money. According to the MIT news story, the city of Boston plans to scan every building this way. Though that project still awaits funding, the interest in applying this system — before it's even fully refined — seems to signal a bright (warm?) future for thermal energy imaging.

Images: MIT Field Intelligence Lab