Night Vision Technology Not Meeting Troops’ Needs
He wanted to make a point. And he wanted to make sure everyone heard it: Marines carry four pounds of optical equipment on their rifles and that makes their job difficult.
“There is entirely way too much gear on that rifle right now!” he said as veins pulsed underneath his bald pate.
There are night vision scopes, laser designators, optics and thermal imagers, said Green, who is now a capabilities analyst at the Marine Corps Combat Development Center.
He needs it all in one small package, and he needs it right away.
He wants night vision scopes that see as far out as the maximum effective range of the weapon, he said at an Institute for Defense and Government Advancement conference.
The Marine “doesn’t know if it’s a human being or a refrigerator. That does me no good!”
Green will have to wait a long time before all those optics are combined into one scope. A very long time, Joseph Estrera, senior vice president and chief technology officer at L3 Electro Optical Systems, said in an interview.
“It’s like the time machine and finding Noah’s Ark, and the Loch Ness monster. It’s a dream,” he said.
The night vision industry is attempting to improve on the relatively simple PVS-14 night vision goggles by combining them with digital images fused with thermal sensors. Overlaying the two images onto a digital viewer will make images pop out, proponents say. Then soldiers and Marines will be able to distinguish better between a refrigerator and a human target.
Converting to digital may also one day allow them to send what they are seeing over a wireless network — to other soldiers in their squad or back to a command post.
ITT Night Vision Corp. this year fielded a non-digital fused device — the enhanced night vision goggle. But the technology push into the digital world is hitting a brick wall, Estrera said.
It is coming down to the view screen, he said. Current night vision goggles are “direct view,” meaning the user sees the images through the tubes much like an ordinary pair of binoculars.
Digital will require that the users see the fused data on a tiny “indirect view” screen. A computer chip will process the traditional green night vision glow and fuse it with the red thermal images so the user can see both spectrums.
These small screens are about size of a postage stamp.
Current fused devices have about 1.3 megapixel view screens, which is about one-fifth the resolution of what is required, he said.
The direct view image intensified night vision goggles in use today have the equivalent of about a 10-megapixel screen, he said. It’s a relatively inexpensive sensor that runs on AA batteries and has an “extremely high resolution,” he noted. That is five times better than a typical high definition television.
But military customers want night vision systems that are better than what they have right now, he added.
“If you want to go digital it has to be better in all aspects, it can’t just be better because you can connect” it to a network, he said.
Until the view screen problem is solved, the digitally fused night vision goggles are unlikely to meet the demands of the military.
“Some people want to say it’s here now. They want to get funding to keep it going … I’m all for digital. But it’s having a difficult gestation period,” Estrera said.
The solution is unlikely to come from the consumer market, he said. There is no commercial application for such a small high-resolution view screen, he asserted.
A look at the Sony PSP handheld video game console may show the way, he said. These full-color devices give an amazingly sharp image. Viewers can also watch movies on them, but Estrera was surprised to discover that they were actually using a relatively low resolution 424 X 280 pixel view screens.
Sony probably manufacturers millions of these small view screens for a buck apiece, he said.
But the defense community may have to settle for something in between, he said.
“The war fighter might find the right point,” he said.
Fenner Milton, director of the Army’s night vision and electronic sensors directorate, said there are several other challenges for fusion besides the view screen resolution issue.
There is still image smearing, which occurs when the head of the user or a target moves quickly. The processors just can’t keep up. The useable light level range required for fusion does not compare favorably to direct view, either. In other words, fusion needs more light.
And fusion goggles require 10 to 20 times more power to operate than traditional goggles.
“The power issue has made everybody hesitate,” Milton said.
Furthermore, the goal of allowing digital images to be sent to other soldiers, or transmitted to a network doesn’t seem feasible with existing wireless technology due to the large amount of information being passed though the radio spectrum, he said.
Meanwhile, researchers are looking to overcome some of the technological hurdles that have stopped night vision technology from progressing.
The list of complaints from users is long: goggles have a narrow field of view; they must be focused by hand, which forces soldiers to take their hands off their weapons; they are heavy; and as Green pointed out, the range falls short of the distance their weapons can effectively fire.
Ryan Kresse, a research engineer at Marine Corps Systems Command’s optics and nonlethal systems office, said “we want to put everything into one box.”
Urgent requirements has sped several optical devices mounted onto rifles into the field.
Since 2005, the Marine Corps has spent $900 million on 20 new versions of lasers, optics and night vision pieces of equipment.
“We have thrown a lot of devices at Marines,” Green said. These new sights are cumbersome and tip the center of balance of the weapon system, he said. It’s like strapping a four-pound bag of sugar onto a rifle. It doesn’t feel like much until it is carried around on patrol for long periods.
Milton said his office is working with Irvine Sensors Corp. to develop a “clip-on” thermal imager option to go around the resolution and power problems with fusion, or indirect view, systems.
Instead of digitally fusing thermal to traditional night vision goggles, it uses an attachment that fits over the direct-view tube. He touts it as a low-cost approach to adding infrared capability to current 20-degree field of view monocles.
“You add infrared when you need it and only when you need it,” he said. They are working on attachments for five common night vision devices.
As for digitally fused goggles, he voiced doubts similar to Estrera’s, even though his program has several systems in the development pipeline.
“We’re looking at fusion, but it’s a ‘maybe’ situation right now,” he said. “The challenges are power and resolution.”
Fred Petito, director of the air systems division at the Army night vision and electronic sensors directorate, said his lab is addressing the limited field of view problem for helicopter pilots by attaching four cameras around the aircraft.
The goal is to give co-pilots — or other crew members — a 360-degree view around the aircraft.
It will provide “improved situational awareness with constant wide field …. coverage while on the move or in hover,” he said. The co-pilot will still wear goggles, but when he turns his head toward a target, the display will take its images from one of the four cameras mounted on the outside of the aircraft. Infrared sensors cannot see through glass cockpits, so having them on the outside allows for this spectrum to be added into the mix.
If he looks behind, the view screen will seamlessly switch to the back camera. It is envisioned for co-piloted Army rotary-wing aircraft such as the UH-60, the CH-47, the armed reconnaissance helicopter and AH-64.
The program is still in its infancy. The lab is still working on how and where to place the cameras.
“We’re still exploring various placement options,” Petito said. Where the cameras go will determine if there are any coverage gaps.
The challenges will be lowering the size, weight and cost of the system, he said. There will also be human factor tests to see if pilots can effectively use the system.
Estrera said this is one of many examples of how industry is going around technological obstacles.
“If you design to ultimate aviator goggle with the traditional acquisition approach, it may take you 20 years,” he said.