The feedback loop of night vision devices

ROANOKE, Va. — When ITT opened its production facility here in 1958, it`s not likely that anybody thought much about future consumer products or other non-military opportunities. ITT officials built the facility, located in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to design night vision devices solely for U.S. military forces.

Feb 1st, 2000

by John Rhea

ROANOKE, Va. — When ITT opened its production facility here in 1958, it`s not likely that anybody thought much about future consumer products or other non-military opportunities. ITT officials built the facility, located in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to design night vision devices solely for U.S. military forces.

Yet times have changed in today`s commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) era where the military relies on commercial industries for leading-edge technologies. The earlier idea of "spin off" — it was once NASA`s justification for existence — lives on.

Rather than viewing technology as a one-way flow from military to commercial markets or the other way around, I suggest it might be more useful to regard the whole process as a sort of feedback loop. This is an area ripe for expansion if only there is sufficient innovative thinking.

Night vision devices seem to be taking that route. On a recent tour of the ITT Night Vision facility I was exposed to them for the first time. They took my breath away. At first I couldn`t see my hand in front of my face in a room dimly lit by one tiny bulb. When I looked through a monocular I could see every detail. No, they don`t work in total darkness, but now I know what the world looks like to my cat Elektra.

They`re not in your local Radio Shack store yet, but if they follow the trajectory of global positioning system (GPS) receivers they will be before long. A decade ago GPS receivers cost $6,000 apiece and sold to — who else? — boaters, who by definition have sufficiently deep pockets. As is well known, if you have to ask what a boat costs you can`t afford one. Now GPS receivers are available in my local Radio Shack for less than $200, although they still have to be special-ordered.

When I got home I tore into the consumer products catalog that the ITT people gave me. There was the Night Mariner 160 Monocular, designated Generation 3, or just one step behind the state-of-the-art Generation 4 that ITT is shipping to military users in the prototype phase. Manufacturers suggested retail price: $1,895. Oops. My pockets aren`t that deep. I`ll wait until they get to Radio Shack.

There are people who can`t wait, however, and they will drive up the volume to where prices may eventually decline to Radio Shack levels. U.S. and allied military forces will have a continuing need, just as they do for GPS receivers, to counter terrorist forces and engage in other local operations. The end of the Cold War, if anything, has made that need more pressing.

In parallel with that trend is the growing demand for these devices among law enforcement personnel. ITT cites FBI statistics showing that most police killings happen at night. The statistics purport that between 1988 and 1998 62 percent of the incidents leading to an officer`s death occurred at night. Most were killed between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. Also, according to Justice Department statistics, two-thirds of sexual assaults occurred at night in 1998.

This is a somewhat touchy issue. Politicians keep their police departments on a short financial leash, so their pockets aren`t too deep either. Then there`s the concern about the night-vision devices falling into the wrong hands. Police forces already have enough trouble trying to counter drug dealers armed with assault weapons.

Like the technology, this situation also may require some innovative thinking. For now, ITT sells directly and through about 47 authorized dealers that also carry such other law enforcement items as bulletproof vests. The company insists that systems to be used with weapon sights can only be sold to authorized law enforcement and government agencies.

The same concerns apply in the export market. Generation-3 products require State Department approval for overseas shipment, although the earlier technology (and cheaper) Generation-2 devices are readily available.

But sensitive items on the State Department`s restricted list have found their way into the wrong hands before, and I can`t believe any responsible person wants terrorists or drug cartels to have any generation of night vision devices.

A worrisome issue is the recent availability of low-cost, Russian-made night vision devices from sources that are not so careful about whom they sell to.

At least U.S. civilian agencies are well equipped with these devices. In addition to such obvious users as the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Department of Energy personnel use them for patrolling their facilities. Even the Department of Housing and Urban Development has bought devices for monitoring public housing projects. Non-government security personnel, such as guards for the Norfolk Southern Railroad, also use them.

After 40 years, night-vision devices should be well on their way to becoming a mature technology as they proceed down the classical experience curve, opening new markets and driving down prices in the process. That is happening, but ITT personnel readily concede that these devices aren`t covered by Moore`s Law, and aren`t likely to be anytime soon. Moore`s Law, as stated by Intel founder Gordon Moore, holds that functionality doubles every 18 months at no increase in price.

The light-amplifying night-vision technology that ITT develops is still complex and labor-intensive — even when aided by computers. More than 400 separate process steps are necessary to produce the image intensifier tube that is the heart of each device. Up-front investment in the necessary facilities is daunting, which explains why ITT dominates this market.

Here is where the principle of the feedback loop could, and should, work to everybody`s advantage. This would appear to be an industry segment poised for explosive growth — assuming, of course, that night-vision devices are not a solution looking for a problem, as was once said of the laser, and also assuming that in addition to the primary military and law enforcement markets there are legitimate needs by fishermen, outdoorsmen, boaters, etc. In true COTS fashion, the military would reap the benefits of lower costs and access to the best technology.

The same logic that has applied to GPS and is likely to apply to night vision devices is available to all. The only prerequisite is innovative thinking, and nobody has a monopoly on that.

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