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Night vision technology developers have always aspired to reduce the size, weight and power consumption of the devices worn in the field. Furthermore, researchers do not only make goggles, gun sights and monoculars lighter, but work to improve the users’ visual range.
“We think size, weight and power will always be on the roadmap as to where night vision is going but where we really start to see benefits creep in is when we mirror human biology as closely as possible,” said Aaron Cole, a scientist at the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Crane Division in Indiana.
As he explained, humans rely on secondary cues in order to determine where they are in space. And these secondary cues come from the periphery of one’s vision. Looking straight ahead, everything is in focus. But a hand grasping a tool coming from the blurrier side view, either right or left, helps the brain to guide it. “What we really wanted to do was copy the human eye as best as possible to give the user the most familiar reference point when using a night vision goggle,” he said.
Crane Division took Cole’s idea and set him up with Kent Electronics Corp. and together they took the idea from a technology readiness level 1 to TRL 9 in six years, meaning the new “wide field of view night vision goggle” is now ready to be fielded in large quantities.
The “secret sauce” that Cole came up with to earn him a co-patent on the technology was curving the image a certain way as it entered the image tube and curving it again as it leaves.
After transitioning the goggle to a rapid innovation contract, officials decided the best course was to retrofit existing night vision systems rather than starting from scratch with an all-new device. It took standard PVS-15 goggles, replaced the lenses, and along with some other adjustments, returned them with the wider field of view. Prototypes were sent to battlefields for user evaluations.
The feedback was positive. The Air Force, Special Operations Command and Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command were among those who tested the revamped goggles. Some of them were used during firefights. Cole said feedback indicated that they were an improvement in 90 percent of the day-to-day tasks carried out in combat. The retrofitted goggles also reduced size, weight and power consumption by 40 percent system wide.
A $48 million contract was signed between the Navy and Kent Electronics to retrofit up to 1,200 units.
It is estimated that there are some 1,300 PVS-15 goggles being used across the U.S. military at any time. It costs about $9,000 to retrofit one goggle.
Meanwhile, the directorate continues to work on reducing the size, weight and power issue while seeking to add capabilities, such as the fusion of image intensified goggles, which enhance ambient light, and infrared, which picks up heat signatures.
The directorate is also working on connecting rifle sights and goggles, so the soldier can see through the sight without placing it against his or her eye.
Other developments in this field include the F50-32 goggle that will be introduced in October by Harris Corp. This goggle reduces the weight from its predecessor from 700 grams to 500 grams. Getting the weight below that mark was the sweet spot customers most often mentioned.