Military vehicles have used optronics, such as night vision devices, for decades for observation and targeting, driver aids and, more recently, local all-round vision, often as add-ons during upgrades and usually as stand alone systems.
This is now changing rapidly thanks to the combination of digital sensors and integrated electronic architectures, and minds are firmly focused on plug-and-play multi-sensor systems that work seamlessly together to provide a much higher level of situational awareness than previously blinkered armoured vehicle crews have ever been able to enjoy. Today, enhanced situational awareness and the ability to identify, track and designate moving targets while on the move are critical and are driving expansion of this market, said Finmeccanica in response to questions from Armada. For combat vehicles the weapon and surveillance sights directly impact on vehicle’s effectiveness in its primary combat role and tend to require the highest-performing sensors.
Meanwhile, advances in microelectronics and optics are making night vision systems more affordable, with emergent nations looking to establish a manufacturing base for elements of their own equipment. Driver night vision requirements here can generally be met with short range sensors (typically uncooled infrared or television cameras), while all-round situational awareness sensors are increasingly important for Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) and Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV) because troops need constant access to a 360 degree view of their immediate and wider environments, the company stated.
Beyond these established core capabilities, linking the sensors with advanced displays and battle management systems promises to transport crews into a world of augmented reality in which friends, foes, routes, landmarks, obstacles and myriad other pieces of information can be drawn to their attention at appropriate times. Although this is a familiar concept in high-end military aircraft, ground vehicles might soon surpass them as the Size, Weight, Power and Cost (SWAPC) burden of sensors and computing power come down because the time and effort demanded by the certification process is so much less in this sector that it is for aircraft.
Moreover, these technologies are reshaping the vehicles themselves, so So argues Dan Lindell, platform manager for combat vehicles at BAE Systems’ Hägglunds subsidiary in Sweden: “We are changing vehicle design to accommodate these systems … First of all, over the last five or six years we have doubled the power distributed throughout the vehicle, and we see an ever-increasing amount of power being needed,” he said. The company continues to work on electric and hybrid electric drive (where a conventional engine powers an electric motor) systems for their vehicles and on-board power generation for both propulsion and mission systems. Mr. Lindell argues that human factors integration is important for optronics technology: “How do we present all that sensor data or images that we want to distribute to the crews? That’s also a very big issue for us.”
The focus for the situational awareness and human factors integration work at the moment is the BattleView 360 (see below) that the company is currently demonstrating around the world in prototype form onboard its CV90 IFV in cooperation with BAE Systems in the UK. Here, head of programmes Andy Thain has a broad view of the market for military vehicle vision and situational awareness systems: “We are certainly seeing a growing interest, particularly at the research and development level across the Europe, the UK and in the US for greater situational awareness in these types of vehicles, particularly armoured personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles and, in fact, in the larger vehicles beyond that.” Mr. Thain told Armada that the company has a number of contracts related to various UK and US research and development efforts in which other companies are also participating: “The systems we’re looking at add capability to the driver, gunner and commander of the vehicle and provide them with considerably greater capability in the view around than they get with the current periscopes or the very narrow slit windows commonly found on military vehicles.” For the troops in the back, he added, providing them with greater awareness is important because they will then know more about what they are heading into when they exit the vehicle: “Whether that would be every soldier in the back, probably not, it’s more likely to be the squad leader who the more junior guys would tend to follow and take their direct orders from anyway.”
In geographic terms, there is interest and activity in the US and all over Europe, Mr. Thain said, with, for example, all seven CV90 operators in Europe (Denmark, Estonia, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden) considering BattleView 360 for upgrades to their vehicles. In the US, army organisations including the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) and the Communications Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Centre (CERDEC) are active in all-round situational awareness, as is the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) in the UK.
Among the challenges involved in the integration of such technologies is the vehicle infrastructure as, to provide 360 degree situational awareness for example, locations around the vehicle must be found, and power and data connections made. Then the images from the cameras must be displayed to provide a seamless view to multiple individuals at the same time; all of which takes significant computing power, human factors expertise and software: “The computing itself is not a significant challenge, but creating displays that are robust enough for military vehicle use is,” Mr. Thain disclosed: “Our displays have previously been in fast jet and helicopter applications; taking that technology and making it robust and soldier proof is something that’s definitely a challenge, but a doable one because as some of the optics we have are quite robust and compact.”
This is a reference to the various Helmet-Mounted Display (HMD) technologies including the optical wave guide type used in BAE Systems’ Q-Sight system and its derivatives, although the adoption of Q-Sight technology is not necessarily a shoo-in vis-à-vis the BattleView 360, as the company has other small, tough display technologies in the works. Andy Thain mentioned anecdotal reports of soldiers in the back of vehicles using their helmets to navigate round the inside, essentially by bumping their heads on things. “Whatever we have has got to be capable of withstanding that environment.”
In addition to the protocol translation work usually involved in bringing data from multiple sensors supplied by different manufacturers onto the same network, there is the task of video stitching. This means combining images from visual and infrared sensors with different lens characteristics and fields-of-view and making them compatible with one another, said Richard Hadfield, who is the technical authority for BattleView 360 at BAE Systems: “We do real-time image warping and stitching to create a virtual dome and then paste those sensors onto that virtual dome.” Another technical issue Mr. Hadfield raised is that of simultaneous head tracking for several people who might all be looking in different directions. He told Armada that the company has a solution for this, which involves a tracking device in each helmet and a network of tracking sensors throughout the vehicle interior.
Synchronising the displayed image as closely as possible with the outside world is a very important human factors issue: “You need to do that in a way that’s not going to make those people violently sick because of latency in the system,” Mr. Hadfield notes: “We believe that we’ve solved that latency, but I won’t tell you how!” How users interact with displays they are wearing on their heads is also an important issue, and to tackle it BAE Systems has introduced a head-down element to the system based on its “highly robust” Map and Image Management Engine (MIME) software that has proved its worth since the mid-1990s in a variety of UK military aircraft: “We’ve adapted that tool for land use, and that includes a lot of functionality that deals with terrain so that we can, for example, plan routes making use of terrain characteristics and that are feasible for a particular type of vehicle,” Mr. Hadfield told Armada.
MIME interacts with the vehicle’s Battle Management System (BMS) and/or a target acquisition system through its vehicle network, collating all the information and filtering it to ensure that each user gets the information they need without being overloaded: “Putting too much information is almost as bad as putting too little information in,” observes Mr. Hadfield: “So another challenge we have is how do we decide what a particular person should be seeing?”
Credited as one of the inventors of BattleView 360, Peder Sjolund is technology programme manager at BAE Systems’ Hägglunds subsidiary. He told Armada that they worked with experienced armoured vehicle crews to work out what information they needed and what their limits were: “We invited a couple of tank commanders and IFV commanders to start discussing how much information they could keep up with in different scenarios. One scenario would be transport and one could be close combat:
“If you are in transit then you are really concentrating on the route, where the next rendezvous point is, how long you’ve got to be driving, what your fuel level is, and what speed you need to be making in order to get to the rendezvous point at the particular time.” Mr. Hadfield added, “but then if you have pop-up threats, if you’re approaching your target, then you are going into a different phase of the mission, obviously the information you see will be changing.”
Mr. Sjolund said that the company combined these insights with an architecture from aviation and from HMDs, which they judged to be the best means of getting useful information to the vehicle’s occupants without filling the whole interior with screens, for which there is not enough space or vehicle power. A module on each helmet contains both an individual head tracker and the helmet’s connection to the MIME-based mini-BMS, enabling the right sensor view and the right tactical information to be fed to each user.
While the number of sensors installed in military vehicles continues to grow, the mix of technologies is fairly stable, although change is ongoing, Finmeccanica pointed out. A typical weapon sight integrates a night vision sensor (typically an infrared sight), a day view sight (either a direct optical site or television/TV) and a laser range finder. Additional sensors such as laser illuminators/designators are often integrated to meet specific requirements. For driver vision systems and vehicle situational awareness, said the company, TV and thermal cameras are sufficient.
Uncooled IR cameras are increasingly prevalent in ‘utility’ applications such as driver vision enhancement, but cooled IR remains essential for high performance applications. In weapon sights the traditional long-wave (eight-to-twelve microns) IR band is now evolving to a mix of bands with the addition of mid-wave (three-to-five micron) sensors. In some lower end utility applications, near infrared illumination with low-cost television cameras is now being employed, in missions where stealth is not a concern.
Finmeccanica expects Complementary Metal Oxide Silicon (CMOS) technology to replace CCD cameras in the visual band gradually, but is reserving judgement on more exotic technologies such as Short Wave Infrared (SWIR). SWIR is an IR bandwidth with characteristics different from those of the mid- and long-wave thermal bands and, said the company, it may prove useful for some specialised applications although it’s relatively high cost at present may limit the rate of uptake among military users. Besides extension into less well-known wavebands, ongoing advances in sensors centre on smaller pitch IR detectors, both cooled and uncooled, which enables higher resolution images and/or smaller optical apertures.
Typical modern vehicle displays are dedicated screens with special features to maximise the quality of monochrome images from IR cameras. The latest vehicle fits use networked multi-function flat-panel LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) panels with software options for multi-image viewing, high resolution graphical overlays and image enhancement. Their evolution is driven by the availability of commercial display panel technology, said Finmeccanica, and is moving towards better image quality (including higher definition), enhanced networking and greater computing power.
Pros and Cons
With an eye on the development of HMDs, Finmeccanica noted both strengths and weaknesses in available technology. Among the former are their compactness, their ability to support both heads-in and heads-out operation and relatively low power consumption. Their weaknesses, said the company include cost, vulnerability to damage, a tendency to cause fatigue and possibly to restrict the ability to perform some on-board tasks, plus the need for a back-up device. The upshot of that analysis is that Finmeccanica does not expect to see HMDs used in significant numbers in military vehicles in the near future.
However, the company is more upbeat about the prospects for Augmented Reality (AR), which, it notes, can be achieved without HMD. “There is great potential for AR to give improved presentation of information to crew which can help with detection and targeting.” Unsurprisingly, all customers are strongly focused on price and performance, but Finmeccanica emphasises that the relative weightings of these factors depends on the application. Usually a customer is prepared to invest more when they require system level solutions (such as fire control or situational awareness for example) not only because these are more expensive but primarily because the requirement is more demanding and rules out cheaper, less capable equipment and suppliers. With less demanding requirements, said the company, the emphasis on price enables a wider range of suppliers to compete.
Emmanuel Bercier, senior marketing manager with ULIS, the division of French infrared technology specialists Sofradir that makes uncooled microbolometer thermal imagers, notes that military requirements are increasingly specific about desired functionalities. These include all-weather vision enhancement for drivers, and Local Situational Awareness (LSA) to protect the vehicle and integration into Remote Controlled Weapon Stations (RCWS) for weapon guidance, for example: “We anticipate two main challenges,” Mr. Bercier said: “First, improving performance in order to achieve a larger field of view, for example 180 degrees for Driver Vision Enhancement (DVE), or to extend the detection range for LSA and RCWS … Secondly, to obtain smaller, lighter and lower power equipment,” he continued: “Even though we are dealing with vehicles, available space for any piece of equipment is always a challenge.”
As far as potentially disruptive new technologies are concerned, he considers extended CMOS sensors that cover the visible spectrum and into the near infrared to be a good candidate for future all-weather DVE applications, with the same applying to SWIR: “New technologies will experience challenges in reaching the required high level of maturity and being qualified for such applications. We will see what happens over the next ten years, but thermal sensors are already based on mature technologies that continue to improve both performance and cost.”
Asked where the procurement action is, geographically speaking, Dan Lindell said that the west talks and carries out trials while in the east they actually deliver: “We are seeing a lot of the things that are being discussed and are being displayed at trade shows are being integrated in Russia and to a large extent also in the People’s Republic of China. We are seeing quite straightforward requirements for these types of systems in South East Asia while the west is trying out and talking, more or less.”