Next-Gen Tracking Sensor Could Help Avoid Friendly Fire Accidents

Tech. Sgt. Marcos Farias attaches a Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night targeting pod to a 149th Fighter Wing F-16 Fighting Falcon at Lackland Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Arellano)
Tech. Sgt. Marcos Farias attaches a Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night targeting pod to a 149th Fighter Wing F-16 Fighting Falcon at Lackland Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Arellano)

There may soon be a new infrared detection sensor on the market that can better scrutinize friendly forces on the ground and shrink the time it takes to identify targets of opportunity.

UTC Aerospace System is testing its next-generation short-wave infrared (SWIR) camera sensor, which it says is capable of seeing laser strobes in real time and can be incorporated into various ground, sea and air platforms, company officials recently told

The system -- already deployed with U.S. military testing units -- is a multi-mode tracking SWIR sensor, said Tara Martin, director of business development for UTC Aerospace Systems, ISR and Space Systems.

"We're amongst the first companies offering that, and that will be reaching the field in the next two to three years," she said.

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UTC first and foremost developed the sensor "to prevent fratricide," Martin said. Secondary goals are "reducing talk on target" and promoting covert communication.

"When people are just talking onto target, there have been instances where, because of their different perspectives, they're not actually talking about the same target," she said.

That could lead to confusion, or an incorrect target description.

One such case occurred June 9, 2014 when a B-1B Lancer on station in Afghanistan responded to a team under fire from the Taliban. But instead of hitting the enemy, the aircraft dropped two 500-pound bombs on five U.S. soldiers and one Afghan soldier. The soldiers, including two Green Berets, died in the accident.

The military's investigation found that the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) and the ground commander mixed up the friendly troops' and enemy fighters' locations. But a "60 Minutes" report that aired in 2017 raised questions of whether equipment onboard the B-1 was the real culprit: the Sniper Pod, which cannot detect the infrared strobes, or "marking devices," that the troops below had turned on.

UTC's multi-mode tracking sensor "can pick up designators as well as markers from friendly forces," Martin said.

JTACS, who call in airstrikes, often have to talk with the aircraft overhead, and double- or triple-check a target with the aircraft before it strikes.

"That talking back and forth could take 20 minutes or so to verify … they're looking at the same target," Martin said. "That talk can very well be [condensed] under a minute when the person on the ground can see" with the sensor, or vice versa.

The more platforms equipped with the sensor -- from tanks, to fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft, and even ships -- the more streamlined target identification becomes, she said.


How It Works

UTC Aerospace Systems has a broad portfolio of SWIR sensors, from custom or modified models to off-the-shelf items, ready to deploy as a service or customer needs, Martin said.

The difference between a low-light TV sensor, a standard way of picking up infrared markings, and the multi-mode tracking SWIR sensor is the wavelengths of light that can be seen, she explained.

"Low-light sensors generally see up to around 1 micron. Shortwave infrared goes up to 1.7 microns, and why that's important is there's a few key wavelengths that lasers tend to [present themselves] in military platforms," Martin said.

Sensors can pick up a wide range of markers on the infrared spectrum. Some lasers such as military pointers are measured in the 830 to 860 nanometer range, she said. Lasers such as designators, or lasers that are intrinsically pulsed, usually used for guiding munitions, work at around 1064 nanometers. A pulse-laser is even more refined at 1550 nanometers.

But it's timing -- the repetition or pulse rate -- that matters most, Martin said.

"One thing that's unique about our sensor is how fast it can operate. The faster the sensor can operate, the more different codes you can differentiate between," she said. "We can tell if someone is pulsing at 4.99 hertz versus 5 hertz … and if you can verify you're seeing that rate, that anticipated repetition rate, you can confirm with much more certainty you're looking at the right person or the right target."

An additional benefit: Adversaries can't pick up the laser on standard night-vision goggles.

"Being able to move to a more covert wavelength to do that has a lot of benefits," Martin said.

And UTC's camera sensor can capture imaging in "a much darker night," she said. The sensor can dually conduct imaging "at the very low-light level while doing the decoding" of repetition pulses.

The first iteration of the sensors can be placed in handheld devices, tripods and ground vehicles, with some being tested now, she said, without specifying which units are currently using the device.

"We've had sensors for years in airborne platforms that can see the pulsed lasers, but I expect the decoding capability to be added to the airborne platforms in the next few years," Martin said.

"The [concept of operations] generally revolve around all these different platforms being able to communicate with each other covertly."

How someone views and collects data from the sensor depends on what it's been integrated into. "It may be integrated in a vehicle where there's a vehicle display. If it's in an aircraft, it sends out a groundlink to where somebody is looking at the feed from the payload on the aircraft," she said.


Who Wants It

According to Sensors Unlimited, the SWIR capability can be deployed on targeting pods and satellites and used for laser spotting, weapons guiding, and maritime and submarine surveillance, among other missions.

When asked which U.S. military services are looking to use the SWIR sensor, Martin said, "All of the above."

"In [U.S. Special Operations Command], things are bought and deployed immediately, which is some of our customer base," she said.

Some units require more testing if the sensor will be integrated into another system, Martin said. Currently, it is in the engineering and manufacturing, or EMD phase, which means it is being designed, developed and tested before it heads into standard production.

"There is always some modification or customization to the software that you tend to build for a particular program," she said, adding that the sensor needs fewer optimization upgrades once it's integrated.

"It's … turn it on and let it run," Martin said. "Some other sensors require a lot of fiddling with different parameters for each [mission] to make it work. This has a lot of automatic adjustment."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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