Editorial Feature

Regional Spotlight: North America, the Home of the Image Sensor

North America is often called the home of the image sensor; they were first invented at Bell Labs, then perfected by NASA, after all. While Asian and European companies have come to dominate the image sensor market in recent years, Canada and the USA are still centers for innovation in the field. This article discusses the current image sensor market within North America.

U.S. Government

Various departments in the US government work with companies and research institutions to develop image sensor technology. While there is no overall investment plan, the work of these departments still contributes to image sensor research on an ongoing basis. The National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Science Foundation collaborates with universities to advance image sensors, helping them design new technology from the initial research stage through to commercialization.

Image Credit: Engel Ching/Shutterstock.com

NASA and the Department of Defense are the most influential US organizations in this field. Both have close ties to companies building the technology and are encouraging experimentation and innovation. In fact, it was NASA that created the first digital sensors; CMOS sensors were first used in miniaturized cameras designed for outer space. NASA still supports US-based image sensor research, building new tools for imaging the cosmos.

The Department of Defense has similar partnerships. Image sensors are now commonplace military equipment used for reconnaissance and detecting enemy assets. The Department of Defense is investing in companies promising to optimize image sensors, as well as exploring new applications.

Canadian Government

The Canadian Government has a specific department working with image sensors: the Canada Centre for Remote Sensing (CCRS). It is a sub-division of the Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation, and focuses on environmental studies using image sensors. It employs precise image sensors for tasks such as monitoring biodiversity or land coverage from space. The department uses its knowledge of image sensors to educate other institutions and companies on how best to design sensors for practical use.

The North American Sensor Market

Since the invention of the Charged-Coupled Device by Bell Labs in 1969, the US image sensor market has grown continuously. The high-profile support of NASA and the Department of Defense has driven the industry to become a significant part of the US economy.

Image sensors have numerous applications, and their versatility has drawn investment from many sectors. Image sensors can be used for surveying land, surveillance, medical imaging, and navigation. Most companies developing image sensors target all of these markets, though there are some which specialize in specific applications.

It is also important to note the significance of image sensors to the consumer; all smartphones use image sensors for their digital camera, and automotives are beginning to incorporate them. The smartphone application was perfected by an Apple subsidiary called InVisage, just one example of the USA’s contributions to image sensors.

Currently, the two largest US-based image sensor manufacturers are OmniVision and ONSemi. OmniVision was founded in 1995 by the Taiwanese company Aucera Technology, and was since bought by the Chinese company Will Semiconductor. OmniVision has the largest image sensor market share of all US-based companies. ONSemi is a Fortune 500 company that manufactures a range of semiconductor devices. It was founded in Arizona in 1999, and has a very successful image sensor product line.

The Canadian market is not developed to the extent that the US market is, but there are still companies marketing image sensors. As opposed to the US, these companies tend to cater to the niche applications of image sensors, such as specialist research.

3D Image Sensors

3D image sensors have emerged in the last decade, pairing image sensor arrays with dedicated software to create 3D images. These sensors can be used on both the small and large scale, and some US companies have found success with them already. Teledyne Technologies and Rockwell Automation, two US conglomerates, have recently acquired the companies Optech and Odos Imaging, respectively.

Optech and Odos Imaging each focus on a unique application of 3D sensors. Teledyne’s Optech develops sensors for environmental applications, such as geological surveys, submerged object detection and disaster management. The relief mapping offered by 3D sensors is well suited to these tasks. On the other hand, Rockwell Automation’s Odos Imaging builds sensors for industrial use, to monitor automated machinery such as hoppers or to quickly assess faults in products.

Other Niche Sensors

Image sensors can vary massively from one another depending on their intended application. As stated before, companies in the US and Canada are trying to corner the market for these. This can be done by designing sensors for specific applications or with specific specifications. For example, some companies are developing sensitive X-ray sensors for medical applications and some are developing robust infrared sensors for military applications. From this point of view, the North American image sensor market is incredibly diverse, with numerous start-ups filling these niches.

University Research

Universities from the USA and Canada have fellows researching and improving image sensors. Most notable is the University of Calgary’s I2Sense Laboratory. This was set up to improve both sensor research and training, with the goal of making Alberta an international leader in image sensor technology.

Many of the US’s and Canada’s top universities invest in image sensors, building cutting-edge technology and finding new uses for them. For example, researchers at Harvard created processor-integrated image sensors in 2022, which are able to interpret images using AI faster than ever before.

Continue reading: Quantum Sensors in North America

References and Further Reading

Nasa. (2010) Image Sensors Enhance Camera Technology. [Online] Available at: https://spinoff.nasa.gov/Spinoff2010/cg_3.html

Natural Resources Canada. (2022) Canada Centre for Remote Sensing. [Online] Available at: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/science-and-data/research-centres-and-labs/canada-centre-remote-sensing/21749

Takashi, D. (2010) DEMO: InVisage’s QuantumFilm enables gorgeous camera phone pictures. [Online] VentureBeat. Available at:  https://venturebeat.com/business/demo-invisages-quantumfilm-enables-gorgeous-camera-phone-pictures/

Image Sensor Info. [2021] World Share of CMOS Image Sensors. [Online]  Available at: https://imagesensor-info.com/en/311/

OmniVision. (2022) About Us. [Online]  Available at: https://www.ovt.com/company/about-us/

ONSemi. (2022) About Us. [Online]  Available at: https://www.onsemi.com/company/about-onsemi

Teledyne Optech. (2022) Static 3D Survey. [Online]  Available at: https://www.teledyneoptech.com/en/products/static-3d-survey/

Odos Imaging. (2022) Swift-E. [Online]  Available at: https://www.odos-imaging.com/swift-e/

University of Calgary. (2022) Integrated Intelligent Sensing. [Online]  Available at: https://www.ucalgary.ca/labs/integrated-intelligent-sensing/home

National Science Foundation. (2022) Silicon image sensor that computes. [Online]  Available at: https://beta.nsf.gov/news/silicon-image-sensor-computes 

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