Feb 2023 | technology report | NIGHT VISION & OPTICS
Night vision devices are in widespread use worldwide and have become a vital element of dismounted operations. What new developments are in the pipeline to give soldiers better capability and greater ease of use?
Above: Ukrainian forces are making effective use of night vision devices in combat operations. (Photo: Government of Ukraine)
As the war in Ukraine heads into its second year, the conflict continues to illustrate the critical importance of night vision at the tactical edge.
The Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) are using a variety of handheld and head-mounted devices to 'own the night' and achieve tactical overmatch against the Russian invaders.
Operational employment of image-intensified (I2) and infrared (IR) technologies, particularly by Ukrainian dismounted infantry and special operations forces (UASOF), can be regularly be seen in video footage posted on social media channels.
Official and unofficial Twitter accounts are awash with UAF and UASOF using night vision devices (NVDs) to clear trenches at night, often against an enemy which might be lacking any kind of night vision capability.
Examples include L3Harris's Ground Panoramic Night Vision Goggles (GPNVGs) – donated to UASOF by the US government – which provide operators with a wider field of view in low and zero light conditions.
Better and better
Despite the operational success of night vision, armed forces and OEMs continue to enhance the capabilities and efficiencies of their solutions in line with emerging requirements from the end user community.
Companies are witnessing increasing demand for more robust visualisation at night, greater levels of longevity and reliability, reduced electromagnetic signatures and cost and integration of augmented reality and other next-generation capabilities.
Speaking to Shephard, senior director engineering at L3Harris Matthew Renzi described how 'absolutely critical' night vision capability has become in the contemporary operating environment.
'Without high-quality night vision capability, you just simply can't be active 24 hours a day. It's absolutely critical to be able to do that to handle situations that could occur,' he warned. 'Many countries have advanced night vision technology and so those who don’t have it are at a significant disadvantage.'
According to Renzi, unfilmed night vision tubes present one of the latest technologies employed by the company to enhance image quality of NVGs. This has led to exponential increases in 'figures of merit' – the measurement of the effectiveness and clarity of night vision imaging.
'There’s been a lot of work done technologically to create unfilmed tubes. Ultimately, unfilmed gives you a better-quality image and so being able to develop that technology was a big advantage for quality of night vision, allowing operators to see more. It certainly gives the operator an advantage to have that capability. And that’s really where that unfilmed technology is able to drive us.'
Renzi was unable to disclose any further information on the design and manufacture of L3Harris's unfilmed tubes: 'I can't get into too much detail in terms of how you build it but it helps protect the tube. Putting the film on was a necessary thing to do, but it was actually hampering the quality. So we were able to develop a high reliability tube without that film, extending reliability at the same time.'
Above: L3Harris’s four-tube Ground Panoramic Night Vision Goggles have been supplied by the US government to Ukrainian special forces. (Image: L3Harris)
Green or white?
Elsewhere, white phosphor sight pictures continue to emerge as a preferable option over legacy green phosphor, according to Renzi.
'Because of the way humans work, we see better with a white-black contrast than we do with green-black contrast. You could measure both types of tube and get the same quality measurement, but the ability of the human eye to pick out details is enhanced by that white phosphor.
'So it really comes down to human interface with the technology and the ability to be able to pick things out in the scene, because that real-time capability is what drives the green and black versus black and white. If you look at side-by-side images of the same quality, your eye would naturally see better with that black and white image. At this point, we've moved to white phosphor for the majority of what the end users want,' Renzi suggested.
"I think there's still a place for the monocular but it is becoming more and more a thing of the past."
Meanwhile, the number of tubes available to personnel is growing, with monocular designs continuing to be usurped by binocular and quad-tube NVGs. However, Renzi illustrated how he believed there would be demand for monocular night vision goggles for a long time to come.
'There’s a lot of markets out there for night vision beyond the close-combat market. So I think there’s still a place for the monocular but it is becoming more and more a thing of the past.'
One of the most distinctive solutions available is GPNVG which has been in service with multiple SOF units around the world for a number of years now.
Featuring four aligned night vision tubes, GPNVG provides end-users with a white phosphor sight picture and wider field of view than monocular and binocular designs.
As Renzi said: 'The advantage of GPNVG is very clear. It's the ability to see with the natural field of view we have as humans. However, it is heavier and so there's always a trade-off and when compared to two-tube solutions it's also more expensive.'
One of the most significant innovations in night vision technology is the 'fusing' of I2 and IR into a single sight picture – a capability which has been advanced by the US Army’s Enhanced Night Vision Goggle-Binocular (ENVG-B) programme of record as well as the Fused Panoramic (F-Pano) GPNVG.
'It gives the warfighter additional information. Having that IR channel means that they're able to get thermal information on top of that kind of more visible [I2] information in the goggle, so it's really a launching point into the digital domain,' Renzi said.
'Those two pieces [I2/IR] are not necessarily perfectly aligned. And so what we’ve been able to do with our products is provide that digital capability merged with the best night vision capability. That's really distinctive to be able to create that merger of technologies.
'And once you get there, you can start to ask yourself a lot of open questions about "what would I do with that digital capability"?'
Examples of digital upgrades include augmented reality (AR) technology which overlays iconography into the sight pictures of F-Pano or ENVG-B, for example – a concept which continues to be developed with the support of the gaming sector.
Above: The US Army’s ENVG-B goggles fuse I2 and IR imagery and could be overlaid by AR iconography. (Photo: US Army)
'In some of these games, end users have little icons on their screens telling them how much life they have left, or other things of that nature. These can be very simple icons that give you relevant information.
'It comes down to how you present the information in the most effective way as possible for real-time decision-making. So it's absolutely true that you could provide a lot of information that would be irrelevant, so the key is to provide real-time, relevant information as effectively as possible. The opportunity space for AR capability today is huge,' Renzi said.
However, the warfighter must avoid any cognitive overload by mass proliferation of information in what is already a highly complex and stressful environment.
"I think user interface is one of the hardest things we have to do in any industry. And I don't want to say it's a solved problem."
'There's always that question about how much you want to incorporate in terms of information and then allowing the user to tailor that to their specific capability. Information has got to be quick and it's got to be real-time. And so we have to make it easy to operate. These are the questions that we’re constantly going to be working with as we tailor the product for the customer base,' Renzi said.
'I think user interface is one of the hardest things that we have to do in any industry. And I don’t want to say it's a solved problem. But, of course, you kind of look out and see how people are doing it. How familiar people are with the technologies that you're bringing to bear. And making sure that what you're doing is comfortable for the warfighter.'
In the end, the age of strategic competition means armed forces must be prepared to operate against well-equipped peer and near-peer adversaries who will also have mature night vision capabilities themselves, not to mention electronic warfare solutions.
This why industry and its customers are tackling the issue of minimising the electromagnetic signatures of night vision devices across the modern battlefield.
Renzi was unable to comment on specific developments due to operational security concerns but did inform Shephard that NVGs must operate at the 'lowest power' levels as possible.
'I think we all are aware that the warfighter is overloaded with batteries today in order to get advanced capabilities. Night vision is a great technology which has extremely low power which means it can really lighten the load for the warfighter, in addition to making them more agile in the field without heavier and heavier battery needs,' he concluded.