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Seeing Through the Noise

Communication Systems
May 9, 2022 | 5 MINUTES Read

When driving at high speeds, engaging targets at long distances or performing delicate manual operations, the ability to identify one’s objective or a potential hazard faster is paramount to effectiveness – and, at times, survival.

Never is this more evident than at night or in low-light environments.

The key to mission success at night is vision superiority against your adversary. For the modern warfighter, night vision technology enables effectiveness, survivability and overmatch through the inherent challenges of low-light operations.

“The Army is focusing its resources to modernize its close combat force so it can operate semi-autonomously, in highly contested domains, and in a very fast-paced and constantly changing environment,” Maj. Dan Varley of the Lethality Branch, Soldier Requirements Division, Maneuver Capabilities Development and Integration Directorate at Fort Benning, Georgia, said in Infantry Magazine. 

Night vision technology performance – and, in effect, operator effectiveness – is gauged by the vision clarity the device provides, coupled with its ability to visually accentuate objects of interest outside the “noise,” otherwise known as Figure of Merit (FOM).

“L3Harris provides the world’s best night vision capability with the highest quality low-light performing tubes on the planet,” Lynn Bollengier, president of L3Harris Integrated Vision Solutions, said. “No other company can match the American-made performance and reliability built in our Londonderry, New Hampshire and Tempe, Arizona, facilities.”

L3Harris engineers and manufactures the industry’s only unfilmed Gen III Image Intensification tubes yielding improved resolution and a much higher-quality image. Each year, the company ships tens of thousands for ground, aviation and weapon-mounted systems to government, military and law enforcement customers worldwide.

The company has been at the forefront of one-tube, two-tube, four-tube, thermally fused and integrated display systems for decades, according to Tom Horwath, L3Harris Business Development director. L3Harris’ unfilmed tubes decrease “halo” effects caused by bright lights, enabling users to see more and make faster, more-informed decisions. This is especially useful in urban environments, where point light sources are common.

The company’s leading-edge, ergonomic night vision goggle technology offers flexible designs to meet the needs of a variety of mission sets, which can be customized for specific use cases.

“Clarity and range are paramount for soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and special operations forces to accomplish their mission in low-visibility operations,” Leith Ames, L3Harris Business Development director, said. “L3Harris continues to drive the top end-of-the-night vision capability, growing the FOM exponentially over the past few years. Higher FOM allows the operator to move faster, safer and more effectively because of greater level of sharpness, contrast and image stability without distortion.”

Today’s U.S. Army night vision systems, with a minimum of FOM 2304, allow operators to see farther than the previous FOM 1800, enabling more reaction time and standoff range, Ames added. The commitment to drive performance within L3Harris is highlighted with its state-of-the-art production of FOM 2997 systems in 2021.

“Since the Enhanced Night Vision Goggle – Binocular was conceived and 2300 FOM was relatively newly available, it has become the default standard minimum for performance expectations for all domestic customers,” Jacob Becker, L3Harris Project Engineering lead, said. “We’ve been able to achieve a full-rate production capability that allows the entire fighting force to work together more effectively than they’ve ever been when stuck with older equipment.”

The overwhelming majority of support-level equipment performance levels have remained unchanged since the 1990s, Becker added; the production capability L3Harris possesses allows access to higher-level FOM, which used to be reserved for tip-of-the-spear operations, to be pushed across the line.

“Our constant, diligent investment in improving our capabilities has made our processes simpler and less costly to produce even higher performance levels,” he said. “All operations are critical in combat, and tasks don’t wait until daylight. Higher FOM levels allow you to see farther at night and see things coming toward you first. As technology advances, longer-standing programs benefit from higher FOM levels as well, to stay relevant in the fight.”

L3Harris’ use of white phosphor additionally provides a higher perceived contrast – equating to better depth perception – due to its black-and-white nature, compared to green phosphor tubes.

“For a warfighter who operates in a world where the margin between success and failure can be extremely slim, our tubes widen those margins to ensure our troops come back safe,” Bollengier said.  

Unfilmed Tubes, Unparalleled reliability

“You can take a tube we sell you now, and your grandkids can use it with relatively the same performance,” Jon Burnsed, L3Harris Engineering Management director, says when discussing the reliability L3Harris unfilmed white phosphor Image Intensifier tubes offer the modern warfighter.

Whereas filmed tubes were invented to protect the image intensifier’s performance during operation, unfilmed tubes underwent “significant process development” to allow them to operate without that protective film, according to Burnsed. The ruggedized unfilmed tubes can protect the cathode’s performance, including instances of high light exposure, eliminating the need for a suspended ion barrier film buffer.

“L3Harris has done such an amazing job in understanding the physics of how to ruggedize and make ultimately reliable our image intensifier that we now provide the best environmental robustness from a reliability perspective and in terms of long-term light exposure durability,” he said. “When you have an ion barrier film and it’s subjected to a high shock load, it will touch the photocathode and will stick. It then rips off the Microchannel Plate and the tube is unusable.”

Filmed tubes cannot tolerate the recoil from anything larger than 5.56 NATO round and are susceptible to burnt-in images after entering too many highly lit rooms, he added; unfilmed tubes do not have either concern.

Another advantage of unfilmed tube technology is they operate under lower voltage, increasing aural non-detectability during autogating. This is exceptionally noticeable for users with noise-canceling headsets that also amplify the background sounds and pick up the tube’s “hum.” Avoiding the extra sound is helpful for users trying to hear what is going on around them, Burnsed said.

It took roughly 20 years from the early 1990s to refine the surface treatment techniques to get to this reliability standard, Burnsed said; he credits Naval Surface Warfare Center – Crane Division for “keeping the spirit alive” and supporting the tube development to get it to where it is today. 

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