Scientists in Singapore have come up with a computer chip that could be used to make new kinds of surveillance robots that capture detailed images from kilometres away.

It will enable cities to get high quality images in ways that were “never before possible, like small drones, driverless cars and small satellite systems”, said Assistant Professor Zheng Yuanjin from Nanyang Technological University, who led the research.

Radar cameras, typically used in satellites, capture detailed images from upto 11 kilometres away, and can be used for monitoring disasters, traffic congestion or agricultural yield. They work at night, tough weather and can see through foliage. But they have been too large and expensive to use on small drones and driverless cars.

The new chip changes all of this: they can be used to make new radar cameras that fit on the palm of a hand, are 20 times cheaper and use 75% less power.

It can be mounted on a drone to take high quality images of traffic or monitor borders for trespassers from kilometres away. The cameras can take photos of objects as small as half a metre, which is twice as detailed as conventional satellite cameras.

“Driverless cars will also be able to better scan the environment around them to avoid collisions and navigate more accurately in all weather conditions compared to current laser and optical technologies,” added Professor Zheng.

The Singapore government has provided S$2.5 million (US$1.77 million) of funding for the research.

It will take another three to six years for chip to be ready for commercial use.