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Electronic Imaging & Signal Processing

High-speed discoveries

From Romania to the United States, Alexandru Aciu has worked to change the face of high-speed imaging.

From oemagazine July 2003
30 July 2003, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.5200307.0006

SPIE Member Alexandru Aciu

The next time you are placing your order at McDonald's, you very well could be talking to someone with a PhD—someone who is trying to support himself and his family while learning enough English to land an engineering job; someone who may be a future award winner in high-speed imaging; someone like Alexandru Aciu—who did just that. Aciu, SPIE's 2003 Harold E. Edgerton Award recipient, came to the United States as a tourist in the fall of 1990 after the Romanian revolution. He decided to stay, and it's lucky for us that he did.

Aciu, chief science officer and one of the founders of Vision Research, Inc. (Wayne, NJ), will receive the Edgerton Award for the development of CMOS sensor technology specially designed for high-speed imaging, which has broken technological barriers for every important benchmark used to define high-speed motion analysis systems.

Aciu has worked in imaging for 30 years. He developed the first photocopy machine in Romania, for which he has two patents, and then moved into working with CCDs. "While 30 years ago, I designed my own A/D converter using discrete MOS transistors, today I'm using the building blocks realized with the latest technological advances in the semiconductor industry," says Aciu.

Aciu was first hired in the United States by Photographic Analysis Co. (Wayne, NJ), a company with a tradition in the high-speed film industry. His first task was to design a high-speed CCD-based camera; after two years, when production began on the camera, Aciu and the principals on the project started Vision Research, Inc., which specialized in high-speed digital imaging. He obtained a patent for a high-speed image acquisition system. "The combination of the challenges of this industry with the proper work environment and the right attitude drove me to better understand the needs of this kind of data acquisition, and to become more and more involved in the sensor design as a major part of the data chain," says Aciu.

Aciu knew that CCD sensors for high-speed imaging applications had limitations. He finalized a new CMOS concept design in 1998: the first multiport, high-speed CMOS sensor with synchronous shutter. "This sensor, combined with our camera design concept, allowed us to start a new stage in high-speed camera design," says Aciu, referring to his Phantom v4.0 high-speed digital camera, which is the world's first color CMOS camera capable of capturing digital motion pictures at the rate of 32,000 color pictures per second with 5-ms exposure time. It captures sharp, clear images of supersonic projectiles using only sunlight. It is also capable of capturing an extreme range of brightness values comparable with that of the response of the human eye.

Improvements in speed and quality, including resolution, dynamic range, MTF, and others, are "hard, if not impossible, to obtain with 'standard' CCD technology," says Aciu. "We are now at the third-generation sensor with new generations on the drawing table. The aggregate speed (imaging area and the pixel rate) have doubled every year," he adds.

The Phantom v4.0 was recognized by R&D Magazine as one of the 100 most innovative technologies in 2000 and received the R&D 100 Award. In 2002, Aciu received his second R&D 100 award for the Phantom v5.0.

With a tip of his hat to his colleagues, Aciu wants to spread the glory. "This type of work is not possible without an experienced team of real pros," says Aciu. "Our team members specialize in hardware, software, image processing, communications, and related fields. Without them such a complex and challenging design would not be possible."

Aciu is married and has two sons and two grandchildren. He likes to travel with his wife, and enjoys boating and skiing with his grandchildren, ages six and eight, and his sons. He's also an avid reader of history and philosophy, and acknowledges that he works even when he's relaxing.

As he accumulates awards, it's clear he could rest on his laurels, but "high-speed" might be a good description for the man as well as his work.