The mantra in the world of night vision technology has always been to reduce the size and weight and power consumption of the devices worn in the field.
Researchers are making inroads solving those problems and more, as they not only make goggles, gun sights and monoculars lighter, but work to improve the users’ visual range.
“We think size, weight and power will always be on the roadmap as to where night vision is going but where we really start to see benefits creep in is when we mirror human biology as closely as possible,” said Aaron Cole, a scientist at the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Crane Division in Indiana.
Cole began with an idea in 2008 to double the standard military night vision goggle’s field of view from 40 degrees to 80 degrees, which is much closer to what humans see. The goal was to reduce the so-called “soda straw” views seen in current devices.
“With the narrow 40-degree soda straw view, you really have to move your head left and right. You have no depth perception. You can’t do basic things like stick a hypodermic needle in your buddy’s arm, cut a wire if you’re trying to disarm a bomb or notice basic things like a change in elevation when you’re running around,” said Cole in an interview.
It’s not only about seeing more, he explained. Humans rely on secondary cues in order to determine where they are in space. And these secondary cues come from the periphery of one’s vision. Looking straight ahead, everything is in focus. But a hand grasping a tool coming from the blurrier side view, either right or left, helps the brain to guide it.
“What we really wanted to do was copy the human eye as best as possible to give the user the most familiar reference point when using a night vision goggle,” he said.
Crane took Cole’s idea and set him up with Kent Electronics Corp. of Sugar Land, Texas, which won a small business innovation research contract to help flesh out the idea. Together, they took the idea from a technology readiness level 1 to TRL 9 in six years, meaning the new “wide field of view night vision goggle” is now ready to be fielded in large quantities.
The “secret sauce” that Cole came up with to earn him a co-patent on the technology was curving the image a certain way as it entered the image tube and curving it again as it leaves.
After transitioning the goggle to a rapid innovation contract, officials decided the best course was to retrofit existing night vision systems rather than starting from scratch with an all-new device. It took standard PVS-15 goggles, replaced the lenses, and along with some other adjustments, returned them with the wider field of view. Prototypes were sent to battlefields for user evaluations.
“We have been getting a lot of positive feedback,” said Brenda Flanagin, assistant program manager of visual augmentation systems, at Crane.
The Air Force, Special Operations Command and Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command were among those who tested the revamped goggles. Some of them were used during firefights. Cole said feedback indicated that they were an improvement in 90 percent of the day-to-day tasks carried out in combat.
“It’s already in the form factor users know and are comfortable with,” Cole said. The retrofitted goggles also reduced size, weight and power consumption by 40 percent system wide.
The Navy gave the greenlight to go ahead with the program, and has signed a $48 million contract with Kent Electronics to retrofit up to 1,200 units. The first two orders totaling 555 goggles were expected to go out in September and October. Navy explosive ordnance disposal units and riverine squadrons will receive the first batches.
They are available to any U.S. military organization that has the requirements and funding in place, Flanagin said. She estimated that there are some 1,300 PVS-15 goggles being used across the U.S. military at any time. So the challenge for Kent Electronics is to turn orders around quickly so they can be returned back to the field as soon as possible. It costs about $9,000 to retrofit one goggle.
Donald Reago Jr., director of the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center’s night vision and electronic sensors directorate at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, said all the service’s labs devoted to night vision keep tabs on each other’s projects and they have all pursued wider field of view.
The Army might be interested in the Navy’s wide field of view retrofits for certain tasks, while some soldiers may actually prefer the 40-degree field of view, but with better resolution, he said.
“There are a lot of different technical things that need to be factored into a final application,” he said.
Meanwhile, the directorate continues to work on reducing the size, weight and power issue while seeking to add capabilities, such as the fusion of image intensified goggles, which enhance ambient light, and infrared, which picks up heat signatures.
Night vision technology is proliferating throughout the world, and it’s the directorate’s goal to stay a step or two ahead of what rivals can provide to their troops.
“Our responsibility is to continue to keep our forces’ technological advantage … and we are using every tool of innovation that we can,” he said.
The resolution and sensitivity of image-intensified goggles have improved over the past decade along with the ability to add thermal signatures, which can help troops pick out targets “but at the same weight of traditional goggles,” he said.
The directorate is working on connecting rifle sights and goggles, so the soldier can see through the sight without placing it against his or her eye.
Defense companies also continue to push the boundaries of night vision technology. Darrell Hackler, night vision senior director of global business development at Harris Corp., said, “Things are exciting in the night vision world. The capabilities are expanding and we are able to give the soldier more information that he needs.”
Ten years ago there were some organizations that had no night vision, even within the U.S. military. That has changed, he said.
“We have been listening to the customers to try to determine what they didn’t like about the systems they have been using up to this point. And it really comes down to size, weight and power. They want everything smaller, they want everything lighter and want to reduce the battery load that they carry around,” he said.
To that end, Harris is introducing in October the F50-32 goggle that reduces the weight from its predecessor from 700 grams to 500 grams. Getting the weight below that mark was the sweet spot customers most often mentioned.
“To get below 500 grams, a lot of the manufacturers have had to strip off a lot of the stuff soldiers have traditionally had in their night vision devices,” he said. Harris wanted to shave off those 200 grams and maintain all the features.
“That was a difficult task. The image tubes themselves, which is really the magic behind being able to see at night, are pretty heavy. They are clad in some type of metal and there is a lot of glass and things like that. Those properties have significant weight to them,” he said.
Along with the lighter weight, the goggles have some new features, including the ability to rotate one of the lenses out of the way, leaving one eye free to look around without the night vision.
“Soldiers seem to like that function because a lot time when you have night vision systems on, you don’t want to stow it up on your helmet, you just need to move it out of the way of your eye,” he said.
The rotated lens automatically turns off when moved up and comes back on when returned.
Users also now have the option of white light instead of the classic green. It’s simply a matter of swapping in white phosphorous rather than green phosphorous, he said. There is no scientific evidence that one provides a clearer image over the other, Hackler said. It’s a matter of personal preference.
It also has an adjustable, rather than a fixed diaptor, which is the small wheel that adjusts to an individual’s eyesight. It’s the same device found on common binoculars. EOD and medics like this feature because it allows them to get close-in, he said.
As far as energy, one AA battery should last a whole night, he said. It can be placed in the device itself, or fed by a powerpack placed in the back of the helmet to balance out the weight.
“We’re not finished reducing size, weight and power,” Hackler said. Harris is continuing to look for improvements. It wants to shorten the length of the image tubes, which changes the center of gravity of the head.
Harris is also taking its expertise in the radio communications realm and marrying it with its night vision business, which it acquired when it merged with ITT/Exelis in 2015.
“The next phase is bringing augmented reality into the night vision device and being able to display information in the goggle,” he said. That might include compass settings, GPS waypoints, battlefield information and target reference points that can be pushed through a communications backbone.
“What we don’t want the soldier to have to do is take his eyes off the battlefield to collect information that is readily available. Now, he can see that information in his goggle,” he said.
These capabilities are possible now. It’s a matter of militaries knowing they are available to them and their requirements. The system is also tailorable. Some organizations may only want a compass reading in their goggles, for example, or to mark a wounded soldier for a waypoint.
Reago said the Army is also working along these lines. “Our next generation of kids today, who will be our next generation of soldiers, they are very used to having a flood of information available to them all the time.” Gamers are accustomed to having “heads-up” information they can act on.
The directorate wants to take already available information and project it as augmented reality in a 3D image.
“We believe that this will allow the soldiers of the future to dramatically outthink the enemy,” he said.
This fused information could be accomplished by adding the data to the goggles, or into a display screen shaped like a visor that is placed on the helmet. The directorate is pursuing both concepts, he said.
Night vision imagery will also be part of a larger movement toward multi-functional cameras, which is intended to reduce the number of sensors on the battlefield by putting them all together in one box, he said.
The next technological leap that will enable much of this is a switch from the current analog systems to digital processing inside the device. This goal has been pursued for more than a decade, and Reago said the changeover is still about five years off, but they are beginning to produce prototypes.
“This is a more natural path toward fusion than the work we have been doing to date,” he said. “We are finally starting to see the fruits of this.”
Cole said fusion of multispectral band imagery into the devices is the future with the ability to see far more than the infrared or image intensified images. That might include short-wave, mid-wave and long-wave infrared, he said.
“In the end, we hope our warfighters enjoy a completely unobstructed field of view just as they would looking through their eye, but with the ability to see in multispectral domains,” he said.
That might even include radio frequencies. A soldier may one day be able to spot cell phone transmissions through his or her goggle.
“That might be 50 years down the road,” he added. Photos: Defense Dept.READ MORE ABOUT BATTLEFIELD TECHNOLOGY
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