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Night Vision Is Only the Beginning

December 2009
By Rita Boland
E-mail About the Author

 

The Enhanced Night Vision Goggle (Optical), or ENVG(O), is the first night vision device to offer infrared and image intensifier (I2) capabilities together. Users can overlay the functions to see both types of images in one display.

Today and tomorrow look brighter than ever for soldiers operating in any atmospheric conditions.

Seeing in the dark is a mere basic function of two versions of next-generation goggles, one preparing to roll out to troops and another in an early development stage. Researchers have combined image intensifier and infrared technology in one monocular device to offer troops improved sight capabilities in any light condition. As the U.S. Army prepares to expand the use of those tools from a few select units to a wider soldier population, it also is looking to the future. The next version of the goggles will digitize displays and enable users to pass and receive information to and from other sensors on the battlefield.

The Enhanced Night Vision Goggle (Optical), or ENVG(O), is about to enter the full production phase, so the devices soon will be ready for distribution to the wider Army. Unlike previous versions of night vision goggles, which only had the image intensifier (I2) capability—the classic green night vision—ENVG(O)s will combine that with infrared technology in one package and display both simultaneously through an optical overlay. The purpose, according to Maj. Theo Kang, USA, assistant product manager to the ENVG(O), is to address the capability gap that prevents warfighters from seeing in all light and weather conditions. The major’s office falls under Program Executive Office (PEO) Soldier.

The I2 capability operates by enhancing ambient light, whereas the infrared function works by detecting radiated energy from people, animals and other objects. In a location with zero ambient light, such as a cave or a tunnel complex, the I2 capability fails to function. By adding the thermal tool, soldiers in such environments still can obtain information about their surroundings. Infrared also can be used in the daytime to detect movement or if people are present in a building, whereas I2 is intended to be employed only in times of low-light conditions.

“Each one of those [capabilities] has its own advantage,” Maj. Kang says. “Here, we’ve fused them both into one package so the strength of one makes up for the weaknesses of the other. They complement each other to get the best of both worlds.” Soldiers can use the capabilities independently or in a fused mode through the optical overlay function to increase their situational awareness and reduce fratricide.

In April 2008, the optical goggles were shipped to a unit for early evaluation. In February 2009, several hundred pairs of the goggles were fielded to the 10th Mountain Division. Feedback from the field has been positive. Comments from users in the Mountain Division tout the ENVG(O)’s ease of use, explain how it enhances missions and verify that enemies have a harder time hiding from soldiers who are using the goggles. More detailed information about which units are receiving the goggles and the timeline for distribution are classified.

The Army’s prowess in the area of night vision is a source of pride for the military branch. Maj. Kang says that the Army is a world leader in night vision technology. Don Morello, ITT’s night vision expert and director of domestic business development, shares that “The Army is very proud of its ability to own the night.” ITT is a private-sector contractor developing and building the ENVG(O)s. Morello explains that creating night vision goggles is an intensive process requiring almost 400 processing steps and 200 different chemicals.

In addition to its work with the optical goggles, ITT is using its own internal research and development dollars to create the next generation of night vision goggles, the Enhanced Night Vision Goggle (Digital), or ENVG(D). The Army awarded a contract for that work to BAE Systems but is cooperating with ITT as well. Another industry partner, DRS Technology Incorporated, also is involved in the development but works directly with the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM). The command and PEO Soldier have a technology transition agreement for advances made through the work with DRS.

PEO Soldier’s key partner within RDECOM is the Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate. The directorate has ongoing efforts to develop the digital components, digital image intensification sensors, long-wave focal planes, fusion algorithms, low-power electronics and microdisplays that will make ENVG(D) a reality. PEO Soldier primarily performs systems engineering and systems integration activities. The efforts for both versions of goggles, as well as the other equipment that comes out of the program executive office, work toward the reduction of size, weight and power, or SWaP, for troop equipment.

The ENVG(D) will enhance the capabilities of the ENVG(O) in several ways. The digital devices will adjust automatically between I2 and infrared when necessary, freeing soldiers’ hands so they can remain in the ready position at all times. Using current night vision goggles and the ENVG(O)s, warfighters have to make that adjustment manually, and as a result, they lose the sight picture of their area of interest.

 The ENVG(O) is, and the ENVG(D) is planned to be, a monocular system that supports dismounted soldiers and enables them to engage and execute close combat and combat support in all types of environmental conditions. However, the ENVG(D) will take the capabilities found in the ENVG(O) and digitize them. The digitization will allow soldiers to save images for longer amounts of time. Also, instead of an overlay display, information from the two modes will be fused digitally, and soldiers will be able to import and export the fused imagery. There is some ability to import data into the optical version.

The digital variety will add tools to import information from other digital systems as well as plug into the network-centric battlefield to export imagery to other systems. “It’s a great leap forward for the warfighter and the Army in general to be able to eventually get to that stage where they can truly engage in a tactical Internet on the battlefield,” Morello says.

Exactly what types of data the digital goggles will import and export is still unknown as the development efforts move forward. Every goggle potentially could become a node in the network, so the Army will have to make decisions about data management. “What the Army has to decide is how much exportation of data [it wants] in a typical warfighting scenario,” Morello says. Until the Army makes that decision, developers will offer capability choices such as streaming video and still shots. ITT plans to present the Army with a shopping list of capabilities.

 

Program Executive Office Soldier, in conjunction with other military offices and industry partners, is pushing night vision into the next generation. The Army is preparing to roll out ENVG(O)s to multiple Army units. Meanwhile, development efforts are underway for the Enhanced Night Vision Goggle (Digital), which will digitize the goggle’s processes and connect the devices to other battlefield sensors.

The Army will face bandwidth decisions with the ENVG(D), and possible bandwidth requirements are an area of concern for developers. If the Army decides to give soldiers certain high-resolution technologies, then even more bandwidth will be required to provide them than if the Army chooses to forgo those capabilities. For now, the developers intend to provide information in full format to other digital devices. Those devices would perform the compression, cropping or other alterations necessary to employ the data. Decisions on what type of data is moved also will be made by systems to which the ENVG(D)s connect. The intent is not for the goggles to stream full, live imagery on a constant basis.

The Army has begun to tie in ENVG(D) with the Ground Soldier Ensemble (GSE) so the two systems interconnect. The GSE is an integrated dismounted soldier situational awareness system for use during combat operations. The ensemble would move information onto the digital battlefield. Through the systems’ combination, soldiers would have fewer displays to monitor and could see GSE information within the night vision devices.

The integration also increases situational awareness by sharing data. Maj. Kang says, “The days of the linear battlefield are long over with. In today’s asymmetrical environment, it’s probably more important than ever to know not only where the bad guys are, but where the friendlies are.” Using the digital goggles, soldiers will employ a graphical interface on which they can see a map displaying enemy and friendly forces information. They can then upload and download information and see it all on a single display.

In addition, the digitization of the capabilities will allow the Army to roll out new technologies faster. “The transition from analog to digital is really a huge technological advance,” Maj. Kang explains. “We fully expect it will open the door to a new era of rapid advancement.” He compares the goggles to cell phones, which experienced a substantial growth in capability when they migrated from analog to digital format. In the ENVG(D)s, a software algorithm can be used to tap into new technologies.

The software algorithm also works with the internal sensors to perform the automatic picture adjustment. When troops use current night vision goggles to look at an area lit by a streetlight, they experience a blooming effect. The algorithm would eliminate that problem.

Though development of the goggles is an Army project, Maj. Kang says all the services have expressed interest in the devices. He also says that the “really big thing” is the underlying technologies that enable the digital program to succeed, such as the sensors and display electronics. He expects those capabilities to be leveraged across the Defense Department.

The Army does not have a firm date for the fielding of the digital goggles. Maj. Kang says the big picture timeline the military branch is working toward includes moving into engineering and manufacturing development around fiscal year 2012. Initial fielding likely will occur in 2014.

WEB RESOURCES
PEO Soldier: https://peosoldier.army.mil
Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate: www.nvl.army.mil/index_main.php
ITT Corporation: www.itt.com
BAE Systems: www.baesystems.com