Obscured View: Night Vision Technology Not Meeting Troops' Needs

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Retired Marine Sgt. Maj. Dominick Green shouted at the group of assembled night vision technologists in a voice that would make a drill sergeant wince.

He wanted to make a point. And he wanted to make sure everyone heard it: Marines carry four pounds of optical equipment on their rifles and that makes their job difficult.

"There is entirely way too much gear on that rifle right now!" he said as veins pulsed underneath his bald pate.

There are night vision scopes, laser designators, optics and thermal imagers, said Green, who is now a capabilities analyst at the Marine Corps Combat Development Center.

He needs it all in one small package, and he needs it right away.

He wants night vision scopes that see as far out as the maximum effective range of the weapon, he said at an Institute for Defense and Government Advancement conference.

The Marine "doesn't know if it's a human being or a refrigerator. That does me no good!"

Green will have to wait a long time before all those optics are combined into one scope. A very long time, Joseph Estrera, senior vice president and chief technology officer at L3 Electro Optical Systems, said in an interview.

"It's like the time machine and finding Noah's Ark, and the Loch Ness monster. It's a dream," he said.

The night vision industry is attempting to improve on the relatively simple PVS-14 night vision goggles by combining them with digital images fused with thermal sensors. Overlaying the two images onto a digital viewer will make images pop out, proponents say. Then soldiers and Marines will be able to distinguish better between a refrigerator and a human target.

Converting to digital may also one day allow them to send what they are seeing over a wireless network--to other soldiers in their squad or back to a command post.

ITT Night Vision Corp. this year fielded a non-digital fused device--the enhanced night vision goggle. But the technology push into the digital world is hitting a brick wall, Estrera said.

It is coming down to the view screen, he said. Current night vision goggles are "direct view," meaning the user sees the images through the tubes much like an ordinary pair of binoculars.

Digital will require that the users see the fused data on a tiny "indirect view" screen. A computer chip will process the traditional green night vision glow and fuse it with the red thermal images so the user can see both spectrums.

These small screens are about size of a postage stamp.

Current fused devices have about 1.3 megapixel view screens, which is about one-fifth the resolution of what is required, he said.

The direct view image intensified night vision goggles in use today have the equivalent of about a 10-megapixel screen, he said. It's a relatively inexpensive sensor that runs on AA batteries and has an "extremely high resolution," he noted. That is five times better than a typical high definition television.

But military customers want night vision systems that are better than what they have right now, he added.

"If you want to go digital it has to be better in all aspects, it can't just be better because you can connect" it to a network, he said.

Until the view screen problem is solved, the digitally fused night vision goggles are unlikely to meet the demands of the military

"Some people want to say it's here now. They want to get funding to keep it going ... I'm all for digital. But it's having a difficult gestation period," Estrera said.

The solution is unlikely to come from the consumer market, he said. There is no commercial application for such a small high-resolution view screen, he asserted.

A look at the Sony PSP handheld video game console may show the way, he said. These full-color devices give an amazingly sharp image. Viewers can also watch movies on them, but Estrera was surprised to discover that they were actually using a relatively low resolution 424 X 280 pixel view screens. …