The Army is pushing night-vision technologies into the digital realm. Future night-vision goggles are being designed not just to see better at night but also to allow soldiers to share images of what they see with other soldiers who may be miles away.
Technologists agree that the goal is feasible, but contractors currently working on these next-generation goggles are encountering challenges in meeting the Army’s requirements for power, size and weight.
The technical difficulties may delay Army plans to award a production contract next year.
Soldiers currently use traditional night-vision technology, called image intensification. These goggles amplify non-visible particles of light to a level of brightness that the human eye can detect. They also employ infrared thermal sensors, which sense temperature differences. Warmer items appear brighter on a display.
The fusion of both technologies would result in night-vision goggles that merge the strengths of image intensification — a clear, sharp green-tinted picture — with the advantages of infrared — the ability to see practically under any environmental condition. Green is the color that the human eye sees most easily.
The combination of the two systems into a single optical device resulted in what the Army calls an “enhanced night vision goggle,” or ENVG.
The current ENVG, however, is analog, and does not pipe data into the soldier’s radio, as the Army wanted.
“We’re trying to transition to a digitized version,” Army Maj. Theophile Kang, assistant product manager for the ENVG program, tells National Defense. ”There’s a lot more things you can do with a digitized system that you can’t do with an analog system,” he says. In cities, for example, streetlights can overwhelm night vision goggles and wash out the image. But if the devices were digital, software could help the system adjust the image, Kang says.
The Army has awarded several contracts for the development of digital ENVGs. It plans to evaluate the designs in July to see how the technologies have matured from the previous test last year.
Soldiers will test the goggles in a variety of environments, including in urban training facilities and on woodland patrols.
“You have real soldiers giving you real feedback,” says Kang.
The largest provider of night-vision technology to the military, Roanoke, Va.-based ITT Night Vision, manufactures the ENVG for the Army. Engineers there are developing a digital version.
For the digital ENVG, the company has replaced the standard image intensifier tube with a new digital sensor, the MicroChannel Plate Complimentary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor, or MCP-CMOS. The microchannel plate sits inside a vacuum package between the photocathode and the electron-collecting semiconductor array.
“Rather than integrating the digital imaging outside of the vacuum, we just integrate it inside the vacuum,” says Rudy Benz, director of sensor development. He spoke at an Institute for Defense and Government Advancement night vision conference.
The digital sensor gives better low-light level performance compared to other technologies, says Don Morello, director of government marketing and domestic business development.
At the conference, Benz put up a slide comparing imagery taken with the new digital technology to a still captured by the company’s legacy PVS-14 monocular device. The images looked nearly identical.
But going digital does come at a price, as demonstrated by the cell phone and camera industries several years ago. Just as those initial products were larger, heavier and more power hungry than their analog counterparts, so, too, are digital night-vision goggles that fuse thermal and low-light capabilities electronically.
“The downside to fusion is the more number of pixels you deal with, the more power you need for processing the data from all those pixels. That starts to drive your power, and power can drive weight and size,” says Rajani Cuddapah, senior program manager of electronic solutions at BAE Systems, which is competing for the digital ENVG contract.
A leader in thermal capabilities, the company has leveraged existing low-light level visible technologies to develop its digital prototype, she says. In the upcoming evaluation, BAE Systems is hoping to show advances in size, weight and power, she adds.
Five of ITT’s digital ENVG prototypes were tested at Fort Benning, Ga., in late spring, and reports are filtering back to the company.
“The devices, in our opinion, still have some more work to be done specifically to reach Army’s very aggressive goal of less than two pounds,” says Morello. “It can be achieved with some work and some more user feedback and some more decisions from the Army.”
The Army believes that by 2014, the digital ENVG-D will be ready for production, says Kang.
The Army’s program executive officer for soldier equipment, Brig. Gen. Peter N. Fuller, says he is confident that contractors can overcome the technical difficulties. But he says he is not surprised by the troubles experienced by ENVG because the technology is such a huge leap from the current systems.
“It’s a black art” to make these new systems, Fuller says in an interview. ITT’s earlier manufacturing problems with ENVG tubes were attributed to the use of pure water from the local reservoir, which had more particulates. “When you’re building something that requires pure water, the particulates were a problem, they were organic matter such as pieces of leaves, things that we wouldn’t notice in drinking water,” says Fuller. “We figured out how to change the filters.”
The problem was fixed, he says. “Smart people are making it work … But there are still challenges that come up.”
The optical ENVG contract is being re-competed, with the possibility of awards being given to multiple vendors.
“We’re trying to expand and go with more than one source,” says Kang. “There’s more in the industry base and we’re trying to tap more into that.”
A request for proposals is expected this fall.
According to Fuller, the Army estimates that ENVGs will cost $18,000 apiece.
Sandra I. Erwin contributed to this report