The wars of the past decade exposed weaknesses in Army technology for infantry troops. Close-combat equipment such as night vision goggles and weapon sights are bulky and drain batteries fast. In bad weather and darkness, soldiers want better visibility so they can correctly identify targets. They also want to be able to aim their weapons without exposing themselves to enemy fire.
The Army believes it has an answer: A wireless network that connects soldiers’ night vision goggles with weapon sights. The idea is that if a soldier can receive the image of the target directly on his night vision goggle, he doesn’t have to bring the weapon up to the eye. In a night firefight, having those extra seconds can make a huge difference, says Army Lt. Col. Timothy Fuller, product manager for soldier maneuver sensors at Fort Belvoir, Va.
To bring this plan to fruition, the Army is buying a new version of its “enhanced night vision goggle,” or ENVG, and designing a family of sights for different types of weapons. Both devices have to be engineered into a wireless network so the sight can transmit target imagery to the ENVG in real time. The goggle acts as a digital display for the weapon. The goal is to engage targets faster without the soldier having to remove his night vision goggle, Fuller says in an interview.
The helmet-mounted ENVG is the Army’s most advanced night vision goggle that lets soldiers see through smoke and dust, and in complete darkness. It combines traditional night vision technology, called image intensification, with thermal sensors. Image intensification amplifies non-visible particles of light to a level of brightness that the human eye can detect. A thermal, or infrared, imager senses the temperature differences and warmer items appear brighter on a display.
The new class of thermal weapons sights are being designed with target acquisition software to allow the transmission of weapon sight imagery into the soldier’s goggles.
The Army plans to spend the next three years on this project. It will take that long to acquire the updated goggles and weapon sights and make them function together in a seamless network that can endure the rigors of combat.
It could be a tough road ahead, considering the troubles the Army experienced in the development of ENVG and past difficulties with soldier electronics gear.
The first generation of ENVG generated many complaints from soldiers. It was heavy and consumed too much power. The Army fielded 9,077 generation I ENVGs through September 2012. An improved generation II was delivered in January 2013, according to Maj. Melissa Johnson, assistant product manager for the enhanced night vision goggle. The Army expects to field approximately 16,000 through fiscal year 2016.
The next iteration, ENVG III, will be designed specifically so it can be linked with the individual weapon sights, Johnson says. “We’re really excited about this product,” she says. In addition to receiving imagery wirelessly, the future goggle will have improved resolution and a wider field of view, she explains. Once the new sights are ready, ENVG III will be retrofitted with a smart battery pack that will provide the wireless connectivity.
Two vendors, Exelis and L-3 Warrior Systems, are producing the ENVG II. The Army is currently evaluating ENVG III prototypes. “It’s too premature for us to say when a contract will be awarded,” says Johnson.
The Army has yet to make decisions on key features of the ENVG III, says Phil Cheatham, deputy branch chief at the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence, in Fort Benning, Ga.
While the current goggle is a monocular device, the ENVG III might be a binocular, he says. The weight requirement is less than two pounds, but ideally it should be below 1.5 pounds, Cheatham says. “Right now the soldiers have so much lightweight equipment that it adds up. We are also hoping to improve size, weight, power and cost.” The current ENVG costs $13,700 each.
The initial ENVG III prototypes still require additional work, he says. So far, vendors have shown that they can get imagery into the goggle. One problem is that wireless communications from the weapon sight to the ENVG consumes “quite a bit of power,” Cheatham says.
The family of weapon sights is being developed under a separate program. The individual thermal sight — the size of a soda can — clips on in front of the day scope of the M4 carbine and M249 light machine gun. It provides visibility in low light and bad weather conditions without removal of the day optic. The Army also is developing a sight for crew-served machine guns and one for sniper rifles. The individual sight is expected to begin low-rate production next year.
Coupling goggles and sights will be a challenge for manufacturers, but they believe it can be done.
“This is a complex contract. It will require superior systems engineering and management,” says David Smith, vice president of Exelis.
Exelis, which manufactures night vision goggles, teamed with weapon sight supplier Knight’s Armament. For ENVG III, the company has designed a binocular goggle.
Vendors expect the Army to pick a contractor for the new goggle sometime in 2014. The production run for ENVG II will end this year, Smith says.
Militaries around the world are seeking night vision goggles that are linked to other electronic devices in a wireless network, he says. Exelis developed a goggle for the export market that is connected to a tactical radio so a soldier in the field can send images to his command center. “It is not any harder to integrate sights than it is to integrate radios,” says Smith. “It is just another device that is communicating with the goggle over wireless communications.” In the Army’s program, the network is internal to the soldier whereas the international system allows soldiers to communicate externally.
One of the difficulties in the ENVG III is that manufacturers have to design a goggle that will interoperate with weapon sights that are not going to be ready for another three years. “You have to design ENVG to receive information in the future. That’s the big challenge right now,” says Smith. “We want to make sure you don’t design the ENVG into obsolescence, and that you don’t have to retrofit it later.”
The customer is aware of these issues, Smith says. “The Army has a good team. They believe they’re capable of doing this.”
Another contender in the ENVG III competition is L-3 Warrior Systems. The company also manufactures weapon sights. It delivered to the Army samples of ENVGs connected to weapon sights, says Bob Kline, president of L-3 Warrior Systems. “The weapon sight can transmit imagery directly into the goggle,” he says. Engineers worked to reduce the size, weight and power consumption, says Kline. “The Army wants more ergonomic systems.”
L-3 hopes it can bring down the price of ENVG if international sales pick up, says John Morgan, vice president of business development. International sales boost manufacturing efficiency and lower costs for the U.S. government, he says.
The Army predicts the cost of ENVG will fall over time if production volume ramps up.
“We continue to challenge industry to produce the best equipment and to bring prices down,” says Col. Michael E. Sloane, Army project manager for soldier sensors and lasers at Fort Belvoir. “Over the life of the program we can drive down the cost from 10 to 50 percent from the original cost,” he says. “It has to do with volume, and partnering with other services to gain efficiencies.”
Another way to lower cost is to use commercial rather than military technology, he says. “A lot of our capabilities are military unique, but others are not, like digital cameras and computer chips.”
The family of weapon sights’ individual variant uses fiber optic cabling, for example. Commercial wireless options also are being considered.
“A lot of the technology we’re using is commercial off the shelf,” says Scott McClellan, fire support branch chief at the Army’s Fires Center of Excellence in Fort Sill, Okla.
“Big Army is slowly getting away from six-year acquisition cycles to develop a ruggedized piece of hardware that is outdated before we get it to the soldier,” he says. But even the nimble commercial industry cannot provide everything the Army wants. One of the toughest problems for Army electronics is power consumption. “We’re trying to leverage commercial battery technology,” says McClellan. The Army always had to develop proprietary batteries that are expensive. The Army also is buying commercial day cameras, instead of expensive glass optics.
An Oregon-based company, FLIR Systems Inc., recently unveiled a thermal night vision sensor small enough to be an iPhone accessory. The $349 device displays a live thermal image on the phone’s screen. Whether these breakthroughs can migrate to the military remains to be seen, says David Strong, the company’s vice president of marketing. “The government is interested in seeing the development of very low cost night vision technologies,” he says. The FLIR product made huge leaps in size, weight and power, says Strong. “It is the first thermal imaging camera that is small enough, cheap enough and low-power enough to be used in a cell phone.”
Military night vision technology is not going to benefit from the thermal sensor cost curve, he says. “But the government can take a small thermal camera, embed it in the goggles along with the current capability and end up with a more capable goggle for little added cost.” Photo Credit: Exelis