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The US military has been using facial recognition to identify individuals on the battlefield. But existing facial recognition technology typically relies on images generated by standard cameras, such as those found in iPhone or CCTV networks. 

A new facial recognition technology under development reads the pattern of heat being emitted by faces in order to identify specific people. The technology would work in the dark and across long distances.

The U.S. military is spending more than $4.5 million on the development of this facial recognition system that analyzes infrared images to identify individuals. The Army Research Lab has previously published research in this area, but these contracts, which started at the end of September 2019 and run until 2021, indicate the technology is now being actively developed for use in the field.

In the request for proposals, the Department of Defense indicated that the “sensors should be demonstrable in environments such as targets seen through automotive windshield glass, targets that are backlit, and targets that are obscured due to light weather (e.g., fog).” 

The DoD is calling for the technology to be incorporated into a device that is small enough to be carried by an individual. The device should be able to operate from a distance of 10 to 500 meters and match individuals against a watchlist. According to the DoD request, the new device will be used to identify those on a watch list rather than combing through an entire database.

The work on the technology is overseen by the Defense Forensics and Biometrics Agency (DFBA). According to onezero.medium.com, the Agency is responsible for the entirety of DoD’s facial recognition, fingerprint, and DNA analysis efforts. 

Two companies are working on this technology on behalf of the DFBA. Polaris Sensor Technologies specializes in processing infrared images in order to unearth more detail. The company pitches its products for defense, surveillance, and industrial use. In 2018, the company partnered with ExxonMobil to research how infrared cameras could be used to detect oil spills. It also has a U.S. patent specifically for infrared facial recognition, showing how a thermal image can be manipulated to drastically increase the level of detail.

The second company, Cyan Systems also holds a U.S. patent on refining thermal images but is more secretive about its technology.

Infrared, long-range facial recognition has the potential to drastically increase the military’s ability to identify people who pass even within a quarter of a mile of military personnel.