Advanced military night-vision sensors rely on sensor fusion, networking, and signal processing

BY John Keller

Major trends today in military night-vision sensors involve enhancing legacy analog light-intensification tube technology, moving light-amplification sensors into the digital realm, blending digital and analog night-vision sensors, and finally, using digital networking technology to make real-time, night-vision battlefield imagery available to the fighting forces that need it most.

Tube-based, light-amplification technology for military night vision has been available since the Vietnam War era, but over the decades systems designers have made unprecedented enhancements to this technology.

Analog tubes represent known and mature night-vision solutions, and are among the most power-efficient night-vision sensors in the U.S. inventory, say officials of longtime analog tube practitioner ITT Exelis Night Vision in Roanoke, Va.

“We are not using a low-light-level CMOS or other kind of digital image-intensification device in our goggle, but you can get the same result using the technology we have available today,” explains Dave Smith, vice president and program manager at ITT Exelis Night Vision. Digital night-vision sensors, he says, “are huge power draws for a true digital goggle.”

Night-vision goggles from ITT Exelis blend light-intensification analog technology with digital long-wave infrared to detect humans hidden in cover.
Night-vision goggles from ITT Exelis blend light-intensification analog technology with digital long-wave infrared to detect humans hidden in cover.

Instead, ITT Exelis designers couple the latest analog light-intensification technology with digital sensors, such as long-wave infrared (LWIR) sensors, not only to make the most of each sensor’s strengths and weaknesses, but also to enable users to save battery power by using digital sensors only when necessary.

ITT Exelis designers are developing military night-vision goggles that not only blend different kinds of sensors, but that also can tap into digital networks that “transform the wearer from a stand-alone sensor to where they are a network node on the battlefield,” Smith says.

ITT Exelis uses analog-to-digital conversion technology to digitize imagery from image-intensification night-vision goggles so that users can send and receive digital information over existing battlefield networks. “They can share information from other sources, such as UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and digital maps, within the squad level, up to higher commands, and are able to be part of that battlefield network,” Smith says.

Other companies, however, are making the move into all-digital, low-light night-vision sensors. Electro-optics experts at BAE Systems OASYS in Manchester, N.H., are building a solid-state, silicon-based sensor tuned to be sensitive in low light. “Think of it as a night-vision digital camera that shows video in real time,” says Vadim Plotsker, president of BAE Systems OASYS.

Starting with digital imagery from low-light sensors will enable military forces to make the move easily to the next generation of night-vision systems, he says. “We can take digital information from low-light and digital information from infrared, and then combine them,” Plotsker says. “Imagine the possibilities if you are in the digital world.”

BAE Systems OASYS engineers are developing night-vision sensors that combine digital, light-intensification sensors with long-wave and short-wave infrared (SWIR) sensors to enable warfighters to detect threats and targets in difficult conditions.

“A lot of work is going on that looks at additional information you might be able to achieve by fusing different types of night-vision and low-light-level images, such as near-IR, LWIR, and SWIR,” says Lisa Aucoin, product line director for soldier solutions at BAE Systems Electronic Systems in Nashua, N.H.

A low-light sensor, for example, might be best for seeing through glass windows, which infrared sensors cannot penetrate, Plotsker explains. Blending low-light sensors with long-wave infrared, he continues, might enable warfighters to detect humans, animals, and vehicles quickly against a cool background. SWIR sensors, on the other hand, are better than low-light sensors at detecting targets hidden in foliage.

Military operations in the desert have helped systems designers appreciate the challenges of nighttime operations against hot backgrounds, which put long-wave IR sensors at a disadvantage—particularly when operating at long ranges. In these applications, atmospheric distortion can degrade imagery in the same way that mirages in the desert can degrade the performance of long-range, visible-light cameras.

“We are deploying technology that eliminates that distortion with high-power signal processing to determine which pixel is real and which is caused by this shimmer,” explains Greg Catherine, director of technology integration at General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems in Fairfax, Va.


Advanced Night Visions Systems Inc. (ANVS)


Ameba Technology

American Technologies Network Corp. (ATN)

B.E. Meyers & Co. Inc.

BAE Systems Electronic Solutions

Bushnell Outdoor Products

Cantronic Systems Inc.

DRS Technologies RSTA

Elbit Systems Electro-Optics — ELOP Ltd.
+ 972-8-9386211

Elbit Systems of America Merrimack Operations

FLIR Systems Inc.

General Dynamics Global Imaging Technologies (formerly Axsys)

General Starlight Company
Woodbridge, Ontario

ITT Exelis Geospatial Systems

JJ Digital Technologies
+61 3 9701 0976

Kremlin Optics

L-3 Communications Warrior Systems Division

Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control


+49 (0) 6441/917 0

Morovision Night Vision Inc.

N-Vision Optics LLC

Newcon Optik Ltd.

Night Optics USA Inc.

Night Owl Optics

The Night Vision Store


OpticsPlanet Inc.

Oxley Inc.

Premier Electronics Ltd
+ 44 (0)1992 478321

Princeton Lightwave

Raytheon ELCAN Optical Technologies

Raytheon Vision Systems (RVS)

+33 (0)1 58 11 78 00

Sensors Unlimited Inc., a Goodrich company

Sierra Pacific Innovations


Stanford Photonics Inc.

Thermoteknix Systems Ltd.
+44 (0) 1223 204000

US Night Vision Corp.

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February 2014
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