Night Vision and Weapon Sight Programmes – Quest for Smart Devices

One of the biggest improvements in weapon sight technology is the dramatic increase in the target spotting range. With contemporary sights, objects can clearly be seen more than 1,000 metres away, increasing the lethality of powerful rifles like the M249

Issue: 3 / 2019By Lt General Naresh Chand (Retd)Photo(s): By US Army
The TAR package allows soldiers to see in the dark, view the location of geotagged enemies in 3D space, receive video feeds from surveillance platforms, and even see from behind obstacles

Defence Forces all over the world are looking for technologies to defy night and adverse weather conditions. Some of these technological programmes which are generally kept under wraps are given here.

US Army Programmes

The US Army is currently developing the latest generation of enhanced night vision goggles, in cooperation with various defence technology companies. Night vision devices give armed forces a major edge over enemy combatants, allowing soldiers to conduct vital military operations at night, when the opposing forces are most vulnerable. Four US-based companies – BAE Systems, Leonardo DRS, L3 and Harris – are currently developing enhanced night vision goggles (ENVGs) under US Army contracts, while other firms are independently developing their own latest generation devices The range includes image intensifiers to IR (thermal) devices to fusion of both technologies.

BAE Systems’ ENVG III/FWS-I. In March 2018, the US Army had placed two orders under a $97 million contract to BAE Systems for a new thermal night vision goggles and weapon sights under the army’s ENVG III and Family of Weapon Sight-Individual (FWS-I) programme. Both the ENVG and the FWS-I are linked through wireless, thereby speeding up the target acquisition and weapon firing process by eliminating the requirement to switch between devices. The integrated technology enables soldiers in dark lighting conditions to quickly and quietly target enemies, using 12-micron thermal technology to produce sharp thermal images. Another advantage is its rapid target acquisition feature that improves shooting by simultaneously displaying the weapon sight imagery and crosshair within the night vision goggles, allowing the shooter to aim the weapon without bringing it up to the shoulder. The ENVG III/FWS-I is lighter and smaller than previous models, has been optimised for low power consumption, and the picture-in-picture and scope-only functions offer a wider range of ways to engage targets.

Leonardo DRS’s ENVG III. The thermal sight is mounted on a weapon and the goggle is worn in the same fashion as older generation models mounted on the helmet. The difference comes when the weapon sight wirelessly transmits a video signal of where it is aimed, directly to the goggle, a soldier can accurately fire their weapon without having to bring the weapon sight to the eye to aim. A control panel on the weapons allows the soldier to turn the wireless signal on and off depending on need. Soldiers can also toggle between infrared, thermal or use both at the same time to spot an enemy in low or poor visibility. The weapon sights and goggles can be used individually as well seeing more clearly and further than previous generations.The new weapon sights are the smallest and lightest ever built for the US Army. The Control buttons are easier to use and were designed with soldier feedback. One of the biggest improvements in the weapon sight is the distance it can make out a target. The new third-generation goggle contains a ‘smart battery pack’ mounted in the rear of the helmet with a computer processor that merges the images of the thermal weapon sight and the NVGIII image. Considered the brain of the combined system, it allows the soldiers to see the ENVG III images and overlaid thermal sight image at the same time. By transferring the weapon sight image to the ENVG III the soldier will get an increased field of view of 40 degrees as compared to the 18 to 26 degrees from the use of stand alone scope of the weapon. Additionally, the ENVG III can also be switched to a basic battery pack and used as only a night vision goggle. Future data feeds planned into the goggles could be maps and information from smaller weapons and other information.

L3’s ENVG-B. L-3, was awarded a $391m three-year contract from the US Army Contracting Command to produce and deliver its ENVG-binocular (ENVG-B). ENVG-B uses white phosphor Image Intensifier technology in a dual-tube goggle, which helps improve target location, threat engagement, and access to imagery of the common operating environment. It is a hybrid system as it includes a separate thermal channel for image fusion and thermal target detection capabilities. The ENVG-B has the benefit of a new high-resolution display and a wireless personal area network that works with the US Army’s Nett Warrior system to produce augmented reality algorithms to provide greater situational awareness.

Harris’s AN/PSQ-20 SENVG. Harris’s AN/PSQ-20, is a Spiral ENVG (SENVG) system that fuses Image Intensifier tube technology and infrared micro-bolometer technology (a microbolometer is a specific type of bolometer used as a detector in a thermal camera) via an optical overlay, into a single, small monocular. SENVG, is improved version of Harris’s originally designed AN/PSQ-20 ENVG, that can be quickly mounted to or removed from an advanced combat helmet. For this reason, it comes with a separate battery pack for helmet-mounted and hand-held use. Advantages of the SENVG over the ENVG is greater situational awareness due to improved threat detection technology, compatibility with existing weapon systems, expanded viewing capabilities, and a colour micro-display.

Other Next-gen Night Vision Products

Apart from the US Army contract, other defence technology companies have also been developing latest generation night vision devices.

ATN’s PS15-4. PS15-4 is a compact dual NVG system that uses two high-performance Image Intensifier tubes to provide clear images in dark conditions. Benefits of the PS15-4 include increased depth perception and a built-in infrared that allows for easy map-reading in complete darkness.

FLIR Systems’ Nyx-7 PRO Gen III Range. Nyx-7 is a rugged compact bi-ocular goggle that uses high-grade optics and automatic brightness controls to provide clear images at night and in most weather conditions. It includes a universal helmet mount for hands-free use and can be converted to a long-range optic using 3x and 5x magnified lenses.

Leonardo DRS’s IWS. The IWS is an advanced clip-on infrared weapon sight based on equipment developed by Leonardo DRS for the US Army. The IWS combines rugged, lightweight, modular construction with superior thermal imaging technology to give today’s warfighter the ability to shoot equally well in day or night and in smoke or fog, significantly increasing survivability and lethality on the battlefield. Leonardo DRS uses a high sensitivity vanadium oxide (VOx) focal plane array (FPA). Unlike image intensifiers that require low levels of light to operate effectively, the IR FPA requires no visible light to operate and will not shut down or bloom when hit by direct light. Also, its use cannot be detected, since it operates silently and emits minimal heat and radio frequency energy.

The Family of Weapon Sights (FWS)

FWS-I’s thermal sensor gives soldiers the ability to see through fog, dust and smoke, giving an advantage both day and night. Additionally, FWS-I wirelessly transmits the weapon sight crosshair and thermal imagery to the ENVG III and ENVG-Binocular, providing a Rapid Target Acquisition (RTA) capability. RTA enables Soldiers to detect, recognise and engage targets accurately from any carry position and with significantly reduced exposure to enemy fire. It can be used with M4 Carbine and M249 Squad Automatic Weapon.

Other DARPA Programme

Tactical Augmented Reality. DARPA is developing an augmented reality system that overlays critical information over a soldier’s field of vision. The Tactical Augmented Reality (TAR) package allows soldiers to see in the dark, view the location of geotagged enemies in 3D space, receive video feeds from surveillance platforms, and even see from behind obstacles. Ground troops will be able to better navigate, ‘see’ through buildings with augmented reality vision. TAR combines an 1-inch by 1-inch eyepiece with a tablet and weapon-mounted thermal night vision sight. The eyepiece, mounted on the wearer’s helmet, projects data over the wearer’s field of view. These three pieces of sub systems are connected wirelessly, allowing them to share information—or pass it to others—instantly. The goal is to not only increase a soldier’s situational awareness but to share data quickly, both with fellow soldiers on the ground but also with headquarters. TAR can superimpose a 2D map of a soldier’s operational area over the eyepiece’s field of view, complete with icons representing other soldiers in his or her unit. TAR also has the ability to keep track of a soldier’s location in relation to his or her environment in 3D space. Friendly troops, enemies, and mission objectives, for example, can show up as icons in the wearer’s field of view, superimposed over their actual location.

The system has got some interesting possibilities like a soldier can aim his carbine downrange and the live feed from the night vision sight appears in the eyepiece’s field of view. A soldier can crouch behind a wall or berm and raise his rifle up, stealing a look without exposing himself to enemy fire. A soldier equipped with TAR can even point his rifle backwards and see backwards and forwards in a split screen arrangement simultaneously. According to DARPA, early versions of the eyepiece technology have already been fielded to “certain units,” likely special operations forces using them in the field. Current versions use a black and white or green monochrome field of view, but agency is working on a full colour version.

Pixel Network for Dynamic Visualization (PIXNET)

The warfighter’s effectiveness in current and future combat missions can be severely limited by inadequate target discrimination, and an inability to view the operational scene with larger fields of view and longer standoff distances. DARPA’s PIXNET programme aims to develop a low size, weight and power (SWaP) digital infrared (IR) camera that can render real-time, single and fused, multi-band imagery in a portable package. This programme also seeks to significantly reduce the manufacturing cost for IR sensors with the goal of making the technology deployable by all warfighters. There will be spin off for new applications, such as surveillance with small UAVs, multi-spectral weapon sights, and handheld surveillance systems.