Eric Fossum (center), at the awards ceremony for the 2017 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering
Eric Fossum (center), at the awards ceremony for the 2017 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. Next to Fossum are two other winners, Michael Tompsett (left) and Nobukazu Teranishi (right). Not pictured is a fourth winner, George Smith. Image Credit: ©QEPrize/Jason Alden
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Former JPL Engineer Honored for 'Camera on a Chip'

If you're reading this on a smartphone, odds are its camera uses digital imaging technology developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in the 1990s. Eric Fossum, who led the team that created the breakthrough "camera on a chip" at JPL, is one of four winners of the world's most prestigious engineering prize, the Queen Elizabeth Prize. The award celebrates world-changing innovations in engineering with a prize worth about $1.2 million.

This year, Fossum and three other engineers are being honored for creating digital imaging sensors, which have revolutionized the way we capture and analyze visual information.

In the early 1990s, Fossum and his team at JPL created the complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) image sensor -- also known as "camera on a chip." The breakthrough technology, referred to as an image sensor chip, came about while Fossum and his team were trying to drastically reduce the size and power needed for cameras on interplanetary spacecraft, without sacrificing image quality. They invented the CMOS active-pixel sensor (CMOS-APS), which required just 1 percent of the power needed by the previous technology, charge-coupled devices (CCDs).

They realized this technology would be useful not only in space but also here on Earth. This breakthrough revolutionized digital cameras, and the sensors are now ubiquitous -- in cameras and smartphones, for example.

Fossum led the sensor's technology transfer to U.S. industry. In 1995, he founded Photobit, a JPL spin-off company, to commercialize the technology. Fossum is currently a professor of engineering at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Other winners include George Smith for his work on the CCD, while at Bell Laboratories; Nobukazu Teranishi for his work on photon counting image sensors for visible light X-ray at NEC Corporation; and Michael Tompsett for his inventions related to CCD technology, also while at Bell Labs.

The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering is a global prize that celebrates a ground-breaking innovation in engineering. It rewards an individual or team of engineers whose work has had a major impact on humanity. More information about the Queen Elizabeth prize winners is at:

More information about CMOS is at:

Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA.

Updated on Feb. 7, 2017 at noon PST to clarity affiliation of Mark Tompsett.

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Andrew Good
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-393-2433 Written by Jane Platt 2017-025