The military’s night-vision capabilities are going digital, but displaying and sharing those electronic feeds could become a problem in the future if the dissemination of battlefield video today is any indication.
The problem is two-fold: First, the display technologies for digital sensor feeds are not adequate. Secondly, the video and imagery consume too much bandwidth when being transmitted over communications networks.
The Pentagon’s laboratories and contractors are trying to improve the technologies and develop concepts for how to distribute and gather sensor feeds and video without tying up the network.
Troops today have a limited display capability with their enhanced night-vision goggles — optical devices that fuse low-level imaging with thermal infrared technology. While soldiers can see a target in the dark, they lack the ability to “fix” its location with coordinates, and they cannot transmit that information to anyone else, says Donald Reago Jr., principal deputy for technology and countermine systems at the Army’s night-vision lab.
“Two-dimensional displays aren’t going to cut it,” says Tom Conway, a senior engineer in the Army’s night vision, reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition project manager office.
Future displays must have a three-dimensional grid so that soldiers can geospatially pinpoint target locations that they see through their devices, he says at the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement night vision conference. To help soldiers find and fix targets, Reago expects that more handheld targeting devices will appear on the battlefield.
The Army night-vision lab in the past few years has focused on reducing the pixel sizes of uncooled thermal imagers, says Reago. He expects technology developments in the next five years to improve weapon sights so that they yield high-definition images. Scientists also are working on triangulating the weapon sight for improved range accuracy and advancing the sensor output so that the corresponding images appear in the soldier’s helmet-mounted display.
The Army is aiming for a digital battlefield in which all of its sensor data is pooled in a gigantic network called the global information grid. Soldiers would have access to the data and they would gain unprecedented visibility of their surroundings. But that future vision is a long way off.
Only a few years ago in Iraq, when a roadside bomb would detonate, there were only a few sensors to witness the event and monitor the aftermath. Little was done to use them coherently and offensively because they were not linked to each other, Conway says. An effort of the Army’s night vision, reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition project manager office is to bring those sensors together more cooperatively. Today, he says, the situation has improved.
The Army’s concentrated effort to deploy more sensors onto the battlefield has mitigated the need to dispatch soldiers for the initial investigation following an event or suspicious activity. The next step is to link the sensors to forward operating bases so that the information can be shared.
But sharing the video and imagery is problematic.
“There’s a disconnect between where we are today and where we need to be tomorrow,” says Ruben Uribe, president of Physimetrics Inc., a image processing and machine vision company based in Roswell, Ga.
The Defense Department already is experiencing data overload.
One possible solution to the problem is compression. But when imagery and video are crunched down, transmitted and then blown back up, there is the possibility that some of the data is lost enroute, Uribe warns.
Another problem is that the information “pipes” cannot handle such large amounts of data.
Thales has produced a technology called IoDyssey that can disseminate imagery using low-bandwidth tactical communication systems. It is an “imagery on demand” technology that can compress large amounts of data. The system comes with real-time and still-frame capabilities and recording functions to store, stop and rewind footage as data is being transmitted, says David Hooper, a systems engineer on the team.