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Army Optic Combines Heat, Light for Better Sight

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The Army is set to deliver a new combat optic to its Soldiers that could take "owning the night" to a whole new level.

The new "enhanced night vision goggle" will allow Soldiers to see an object, even if it's obscured by dust, foliage or other debris, by combining the image intensification technology of current PVS-14 NVGs with heat-sensing thermal data.

"Image intensification gives you great resolution. ... The thermal gives you improved target detection in all light conditions and through obscurants," said Lt. Col. James Smith, the Army's product manager for Soldier sensors and lasers.

"You put those two together and you get the combined effect to give the Soldier much greater situational awareness and target detection capability," Smith told Defense Tech.

Current NVGs magnify "ambient" illumination - such as light from stars and the moon - to help brighten the surroundings so troops can see objects in the dark. But if something's hidden behind trees or it's raining or dusty, standard night optics can't cut through.

Thermal imagery, on the other hand, illuminates an object's radiant heat, pulling away the mask of darkness even in the most light-deprived environments.

Smith said the service plans to field the new optic to units beginning in February, but he would not say which troops would get it first, citing "operational security" concerns.

The ITT Corp.-built PSQ-20 costs about three times more than the PVS-14, running the Army about $10,000 per optic, so, it's not for everyone. Only select troops such as engineers, military police and unit leaders will be issued the new optic.

The ENVG is also significantly heavier than the PVS-14, Smith admitted, weighing in at about two pounds. But to mitigate the added weight's impact, engineers have designed a system to mount the optic's battery pack on the back of a Soldier's helmet, helping distribute the weight more evenly and reduce neck strain.

"We've received a lot of positive comments on the suitability and wearability of the ENVG from Soldiers" after incorporating the rear-mounted battery, Smith said.

The PSQ-20 can be switched between standard image-intensification mode, thermal or a combined mode which shows the object's thermal signature as an outline on a green background.

The thermal imaging can help a trooper see in places where there's no light, such as in caves or windowless buildings, without activating a rifle-mounted infrared beam to illuminate the target - a move that could tip off an NVG-equipped enemy.

Program officials at PEO Soldier are also working on night optics a generation beyond the ENVG. Smith said his team is looking to take the thermal and image-intensification properties of the PSQ-20 and present them as a digital image.

Think of it as a digital camera on steroids.

Instead of looking through a true-optical scope, a trooper would see a computer-processed image of his target. The advantage, officials say, is that Soldiers could overlay mapping data and other statistics on top of the image they're looking at, increasing situational awareness. Soldiers could also transmit the digital image they're seeing through the optic to commanders in the rear or unit leaders in the patrol.

"The digital format will allow for interoperability with the 'ground Soldier system,' " Smith said. "The exchange of imagery - other imagery that can be presented within the digital version of the ENVG - will all be enabled."

But officials admit they're still a long way from fielding the digitally-enhanced goggle. For starters, the technology hasn't caught up with the clarity needed for the goggle and the weight of the guts needed to digitize the image is still problem, Smith said.

"The PVS-14 has outstanding resolution," Smith explained. "So one of the things we're working really hard on is to get the resolution of the digital information higher."

Army officials say they hope to field the digital NVG by 2011, and it will most likely go to units equipped with Land Warrior-like futuristic combat equipment.

-- Christian

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