Well known for the development of the “night vision goggles,” the Army Materiel Command (AMC) Research Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM), Communications-Electronics Research Development and Engineering Center’s (CERDEC) Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate (NVESD) does more than just make goggles.
In the late 1960’s real-time thermal imaging technology started to show promise to providing long range detection and recognition capability at night. For more than 40 years, NVESD has continuously conducted advanced exploratory research with a focus to provide Soldiers with the necessary sensor technology and innovative products to gain the advantage of being able to maneuver effectively under the cover of darkness.
More than a hundred years after a German-born British astronomer discovered what is now called infrared or thermal energy, NVESD’s research focuses on further exploring and expanding the utilities of this phenomenology. In its early existence, the laboratory’s scientists and engineers saw the potential use for this technology in military applications.
Although some historians feel that the discovery was accidental, its significance led to a variety of technologies to include thermal imaging.
Thermal energy became an imaging technology in the years just following World War II. Forward Looking Infrared, or FLIR, technology originated as a sensor system for fighter aircraft. Thermal imaging systems, imagery produced by measuring and recording electronically the thermal radiation of objects, became much in demand for all weapon system platforms.
Infrared imaging sensors or FLIRs have become the sensor of choice day or night for most combat platforms, air and ground. FLIR systems have become a real influence on the battlefield and were used during the initial invasion of Iraq, where there was significant night fighting.
FLIR systems are designed to operate at one of two wavelengths – 3 to 5 microns (mid-wave infrared) or 8 to 12 microns (long-wave infrared) – or atmospheric windows where water vapor in the air is less of an issue. In layman terms, FLIR technology senses heat emitted by a person or an object. Incorporated into a sophisticated optical system, this technology provides greater stand-off range and reduces the Warfighter’s exposure time.
Sensor systems that utilize FLIR technology to provide the advantage of seeing not only at night but also through smoke, fog and other obscured battlefield conditions. Early attempts at this type of battlefield sensing produced sensors that were large and mounted in a fixed position facing forward – thus the name “Forward Looking.”
Operation Desert Storm as well as current US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan has substantiated beyond any doubt that night vision technology was, and continues to be, the force multiplier. Targeting systems using FLIR technology were particularly important to the major weapon systems due to their ability to see through dense smoke, dust, fog, and haze, at great distances.
Over the years, we have experienced a paradigm shift in the development and manufacturing of sensor components.
Today, infrared sensors have become the sensor of choice for several combat platforms including tanks, troop movers, and tactical aircrafts. The development of uncooled infrared has paved the way for FLIR imagers to be smaller, more compact, and cheaper, allowing the individual Soldier and unmanned platforms to take advantage of the technolgies.
Since its inception, the directorate has actively pursued domestic technology transfer and has compounded the use of the nation’s most advanced technology, to incorporate the health and medical fields.
Today, medical professionals on the battlefield are utilize FLIR technology to help save lives. Military doctors and nurses are employing a FLIR device to help diagnose severe conditions like Acute Compartment Syndrome. Medical personnel are able to determine the presence or a impediment of blood flow in the extremities of wounded personnel. This valuable information helps to prioritize the wounded for immediate evacuation and treatment.
In the future we will see intelligent sensor systems that utilize advanced Focal Plane Array (FPA) technology that can see farther and penetrate all aspects of the dirty battlefield. This will be made possible through an innovative technique known as Dual Band Focal Plane Array Manufacturing (DBFM). These large formats, dual band staring FPAs will allow the operator to select to operate simultaneously in the mid-wave infrared (MWIR) and long-wave infrared (LWIR) regions.
The payoff of this revolutionary breakthrough will give the Warfighter a combat overmatch. The paradigm shift that this technology bringswill enable the Soldier to fire upon his adversaries without being seen. This technology will allow the Warfighter to identify the threat before the enemy can even detect our soldiers presence, resulting in increased survivability by being able to rapidly search wide areas while on-the-move, and reduced crew burden due to aided search and detection for surveillance tasks and difficult targets.
As our sensor technology matures, the current path forward will lead to the miniaturization of components and sensor packages. The sensor package you see today on larger, tactical vehicles will be combined in small miniaturized gimbals that can be placed on remote-controlled ground and air platforms.