From integrated GPS to fully networked solutions, the technology surrounding night vision for everything from weapon sights to general observation is advancing rapidly, with several companies offering innovative products designed to provide the soldier with a clearer view of the nighttime environment than ever before.
James Munn, president of ATN Corp., said the industry is on the cusp of several major advances in night vision technology. “As thermal imaging comes down in price, and with sensors that are chip-based as opposed to image-intensifier-tube-based, there’s a lot more we can do with the night vision and thermal units,” he said.
A Mini Computer
ATN is currently in the process of launching a full suite of products, Munn said, that offer both day and night thermal imaging, along with additional functionality such as Wi-Fi, geotagging, digital compasses and/or GPS. “Basically, your night vision device now has a mini computer built into it,” he said.
All of that functionality is available via ATN’s Obsidian Core. “It’s a mini-computer built into a night vision device that allows you to do so much more than what a regular core has done in the past—recording in high definition, having Wi-Fi, having built-in compasses, GPS, accelerometers—all built in,” Munn said.
Munn said that kind of functionality can offer a wide range of significant benefits. “Whatever you’re looking at, you can record or send via Wi-Fi back to someone else that’s reviewing it and they can see what you’re looking at,” he said. “And with the GPS tracker, you can always come back and see where you were.”
An Integrated Solution
Eric Garris, network systems strategist and chief engineer at Exelis, said his company’s current focus in night vision is the Tactical Mobility Night Vision Goggle (TMNVG). “It incorporates an integrated, full-color display and a camera-capture capability that allows you to capture live imagery from the soldier view of the night-intensified image,” he said.
Together with Exelis’ Jagwire video content management solution and SpearNet radio, which offers a data transfer rate of 2 to 3 Mbps, the TMNVG then allows the soldier to transmit live video to a command and control unit. “We’ve integrated those three different products and joined them together as a unified product that we’re offering as the Individual Soldier System,” Garris said.
“So you have the goggle for the actual soldier for situational awareness via the display, the data radio with the SpearNet allowing transmission of data to and from the soldier, and then Jagwire being able to pull the video directly from the soldier to give the commander situational awareness of what’s going on in the battlefield like never before,” said Garris.
The Benefits of Integration
There are several tangible benefits to that kind of system. “Let’s say you have a scout going out on a mission to gather information on the front line,” Garris said. “If you have an analog device, he’s empowered to be able to see imagery at night. If you have a TMNVG, the commander can send him maps or positional information, so the soldier can see his individual position, and the commander can see live imagery of what the soldier’s seeing.”
One Exelis user, Garris said, has told him it’s transformed his decision-making process. “In Afghanistan, to make an assessment at a platoon level as far as target acquisition, the commander would actually have to go to the front line to make an assessment before making a command decision so as not to make an error—whereas now, with this, you’re able to send that live imagery right back to command and control, allowing informed and very rapid decision-making,” he said.
The point is that an integrated solution like this reaches far beyond the functionality of a simple night vision goggle. “We’re providing a capability that a goggle alone or a radio alone or a content management solution alone would not provide,” Garris said. “So we’re hitting a different area of the market where there’s a bigger demand for intelligence, soldier security, protection of forces and rapid dissemination of information that traditional legacy devices can’t provide.”
Andrew Owen, vice president of product management at FLIR, said most, if not all, of his company’s night vision weapon sights for the military are clip-on sights that are primarily used in conjunction with a day optic. “So once your day optic is on the weapon and it’s sighted and mounted, it stays on the weapon,” he said. “The user doesn’t have to take off the day optic to use his sight, whether it’s I2 or thermal—they simply clip the thermal or the I2 sight onto the front of the weapon.”
Owen said FLIR is now adding additional sensors to these systems, such as digital magnetic compasses and internal digital video recorders. “We also have the ability to connect cameras together,” he said. “So you might have another user that has an observation device, and he sees a target—they want to get the shooter on target, so instead of trying to verbally walk him on, we have direct video sharing between one camera and the other. So both the shooter and the spotter are looking at the same scene, and that helps them coordinate their activities a lot more tightly.”
FLIR also offers a weapon sight that combines both I2 and thermal. “Users obviously see the benefit of a thermal sight for quick detection, and they see the benefit of the I2 sight, because you’re using visible light, so that gives you the ability to truly recognize target A versus target B,” Owen said. “So we’ve taken both of those imaging sensors and built them into a single weapon sight, and we’ve done that with an innovative single telescope or weapon sight.”
A Blended Sight
The result is a blended sight that uses a single telescope to collect both visible light for I2 and infrared light for thermal. “The user can dial in as much or as little of either channel as he needs to or chooses to for that particular mission, for that environment and for that lighting condition,” Owen said. “He can be 100 percent thermal, 100 percent I2 or some blended percentage of the two that he can easily control with an adjustment.”
For bi-ocular night vision cameras, Owen said FLIR has mimicked game controllers with a joystick operated by the left thumb and a rotary knob operated by the right thumb. “When you look at the typical soldier these days, he’s somewhere between the ages of 19 and 26 years old—10 years ago, he was getting his training playing video games,” he said. “So what we’ve seen is, we give these soldiers a quick instruction—left thumb, right thumb, what it does—and it seems to resonate well with the users these days.”
Additional features like GPS and a digital magnetic compass can then provide location, and a laser rangefinder can provide range to target. “With a camera designed for geolocation, you know where you are by virtue of your own internal GPS, your digital magnetic compass is giving you bearing to target, and your laser rangefinder gives you distance to target and will instantly perform a target geolocation for you,” Owen said.
Differentiating Between Solutions
Mike Alvis, president and CEO of B.E. Meyers, noted that in the image intensification market, there are only two Gen 3 night vision tube manufacturers in the world, both of them based in the United States: L-3 Communications and Exelis. As a result, Alvis said, differentiators between night vision solutions often come down to other features, such as cost, size, weight and ruggedness (SWIR).
For goggles in particular, Alvis noted, weight is often a key concern. “We’re offering a binocular night vision goggle which we feel is the best binocular night vision goggle in the world below the weight of 600 grams,” he said. “The danger when you do a lightweight night vision goggle is a lot of times you lose a lot of its ruggedness and its ability to withstand environmental factors—so we feel it’s the most rugged, most capable lightweight night vision goggle in the world.”
In addition to their improved performance, Alvis said, it’s also worth noting that Gen 3 night vision tubes last far longer than Gen 2, making it easy to justify the increased financial investment. “A Generation 2 tube lasts about two and a half years, and a Generation 3 tube lasts about 10 years,” said Alvis. “Life cycle cost isn’t a performance parameter, but that has something do with it—how much it costs you to replenish it and replace it, maintain it, and keep it in your system.”
A Transition Point
Alvis said night vision is currently at a transition point where digital output is often available within single types—thermal or image intensification—but not for night vision goggles that offer a fusion of the two. “If you’re ever going to see a digital goggle in the hands of soldiers, you’re going to see it digitally fusing image intensification and thermal IR images—and the challenges of that are still pretty great,” he said. “It’s definitely the next generation, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”
And that work, Alvis said, is unfortunately being slowed down by budget constraints. “With the downturn in the DoD market, people aren’t making the kind of money they did during Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ability for us to invest using our own money is much more limited,” he said. “So I wouldn’t be surprised if you see development stagnating a little bit as people try to adjust to the new environment.” In the meantime, he remarked that current night vision technologies are likely to be around for 20 or 30 more years.
Leveraging a Modular Approach
Alan Page, president of the sensor systems division at the O’Gara Group, said the biggest sea change in night vision over the past several years has been the inclusion of multiple sensors in dismounted soldier systems. “These sensors include analog night vision tubes, digital low-light chips, thermal FPAs, and even SWIR,” he said. “Each sensor brings a unique spectral band with associated advantages and disadvantages.”
The idea is then to combine the inputs from all of those sources and present the operator with a combined image that highlights relevant data. “Night vision goggles can display GPS data, satellite or UAV imagery, moving maps, etc.,” he said. “Large aviation platforms have used this methodology for years—but with advances in digital signal processing and/or optical designs that allow overlaid images, this ability has been extended to dismounted troops.”
Page said that kind of functionality is best enabled with a modular approach. “What the user does, whether at the command level or at the unit level, is determine the best sensors for his needs, and then build a system that utilizes them,” he said. “Perhaps today’s operation needs an analog tube-based NVG with a clip-on thermal, but tomorrow they forgo the clip-on thermal in favor of a handheld SWIR imager and a rail-mounted thermal scope.”
A Rapidly Advancing Industry
O’Gara’s AN/PVS-21 low-profile night vision goggle, Page said, allows the user to see both the intensified and un-intensified scene simultaneously, and includes a heads-up display injection port that allows overlay of additional data. “This HUD port makes the PVS-21 a versatile platform that the user can build a modular system around,” he said. A recently introduced clip-on thermal module (COTM) can also be added to overlay thermal on top of the night vision scene.
Page said the industry as a whole is advancing rapidly in terms of both efficiency and miniaturization. “It’s still hard to beat an analog image intensifier tube for resolution or efficiency—but low-light digital solutions get better every year,” he said. “Thermal systems continue to get physically smaller and more efficient while increasing in resolution, leading to better packing solutions for dismounted troops.”
“SWIR systems are also coming down in size and cost, and improving in spectral response,” Page noted. “These changes have led to their incorporation in some major DoD rifle scope projects and clip-on projects. So I expect to see that sensor platform proliferate.”
Ultimately, Page said, several new technologies are making night vision a fascinating area to watch. “O’Gara is excited about the future.” ♦
- Issue: 5
- Volume: 5