Enhancing The MK.1 Eyeball

Dismounted troops face a complex array of tasks that frequently involve making quick, critical decisions under harsh, dangerous conditions. Whether conducting sustained combat, raids, reconnaissance, surveillance or hostage rescue soldiers need all the help they can get to understand their situation.

While today’s market is dominated by handheld systems, there is growing interest in larger but still soldier-portable systems that provide longer ranges, wider fields of view, video analytics and the cueing of supplementary sensors and targeting systems. In urban environments in particular, there is a need to see though walls to reduce risks to soldiers whom have to enter buildings that may have armed and hostile occupants. In all cases, the trend is towards multiple sensors, encompassing both radar and optronics, which also provide reliable connectivity: “Many nations around the world are looking to increase the responsiveness and flexibility of their forces, to deal with a broader range of threats”, said Andrew Saxton, FLIR Systems’ director of marketing, surveillance, emerging, outdoor and tactical systems: “The ability to gather actionable information from a wider variety of sources gives commanders that operational flexibility.”

Knowing not only what is around the next corner, but what is in the next building forms a vital part of military operations in urban terrain. Advancements in optronics and radars are enhancing soldiers’ capabilities in this regard. (US DoD)

Pack It In

The eternal limitations of weight and power still affect dismounted equipment more severely than other types, but significant progress is being made even with more complex multi-sensor equipment: “Improvements in optics, materials and power systems all allow us to remove weight, offering greater range performance, more sensors, and longer run-time”, he told Armada: “Even in the past few years, huge strides have been made in this respect. Our weight reduction efforts have enabled us to produce the Recon-V, which has HD (High Definition) thermal long-range imaging, a laser rangefinder, a digital magnetic compass, and GPS (Global Positioning System), all under 2.2 kilograms (five pounds). This just wasn’t possible five years ago.”

FLIR Systems is leading the charge in reducing the size, weight and power consumption of optronics for dismounted soldiers. To this end, it is now producing systems weighing under 2.2kg. (FLIR Systems)

Naveh Bahat, director of electro-optics research and development, and business development for the systems missiles and space group of Israel Aerospace Industries’ Tamam division, acknowledges the predominance of handheld systems and comments that there is a requirement in Israel for longer-ranged dismounted observation systems than elsewhere.

In the near future, Mr. Bahat expects their evolution to produce more integrated systems centred on uncooled cameras with laser rangefinders, GPS and target location capabilities. He also predicts that more systems will have friendlier user controls based on computing and graphics technologies developed for smartphones. Other changes he anticipates include more integration of radars and optronics, dismounted and mobile search and track systems and greater connectivity. Rather than weight and power, he emphasised narrow fields-of-view in optronics sensors as the prime limitation affecting current reconnaissance equipment for dismounts, putting forward the integration of small, lightweight radars as an important part of the solution: “In naval applications, reconnaissance systems have developed to search and track using radars for cueing and electro-optical systems for investigating and aiming,” he continued: “We think that the land battlefield will take the same path. IAI is working on these directions.” Furthermore, optical and mapping technologies will be able to calculate accurate location without using GPS, he said.

Out of the vehicle!

Johnny Carni, Controp’s marketing and sales vice-president commented to Armada that while the last decade or so has witnessed a great deal of activity in mobile optronics operated from vehicles, the company sees a shift in emphasis toward getting out of the vehicle and operating the equipment at some distance from it, to reduce the risk of being detected, particularly in homeland security and border patrol missions: “What we hear from the users is that once they put up towers with all this sophisticated (optronics) equipment and radars, the bad guys know where the towers are and learn the weak points … It’s not like a coastal position where you don’t have an issue because there is a good line of sight. Inland you always have line of sight issues … Now we see a growing need for portable equipment that enable border patrol units to set up ambushes in different locations at different times.”

Mobile and soldier-portable equipment, he emphasised, also helps overcome the limitations of fences and the threat of tunnels. Intruders can dig tunnels under sections of fences that are under observation, adding that once they get more than 15 m (49.2 feet) from the fence they are beyond the monitored area. This problem can be addressed by small teams of two or three operators with sensors that provide wide-area coverage and radios with which they can call in their colleagues to take control of what they have detected.

Soda Straw

Controp provides for these kinds of missions in a number of ways, Mr. Carni continued, providing its small, stabilised uncooled cameras for use with lightweight, soldier-portable radars to enable identification of targets that ground surveillance radars can detect; cameras the company originally developed for use with small UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). The use of active sensors such as radars in higher threat environments also provides an incentive to operate them some distance away. “Because of the risk of the vehicle being hit”, he said, “(soldiers) want to take off the sensors or fit them very high up in order to avoid taking casualties.”

Mr. Saxton emphasises the importance of using radar and optronics together. “It’s all about interconnectivity,” he said: “We produce man-portable radars as well as handheld systems, and the true innovation comes in combining the information from both devices into actionable intelligence. This is where we focus, and as each technology improves, the whole system improves.” He again points to the importance of connectivity to enable dismounted reconnaissance troops to make the most of networked information feeds from diverse sources including UAVs, aircraft, aerostats and Unattended Ground Sensors (UGS): “Utilising a common architecture allows several single-point information sources to become one multi-faceted surveillance system. Cross-cueing between sensors allows a dismounted person to quickly get eyes on a target found by an aerostat, and vice versa. An Aerostat system can take a latitude-longitude data point from a UGS and rapidly interrogate without having to repeat the search process.”

Panoramic Twister

While portable radars coupled with optronics can get rid of the ‘soda straw’ limitations imposed by most cameras, by which the viewer can effectively be denied peripheral vision due to how their camera may see an object (akin to looking through a soda straw), and the lack of target recognition and identification capabilities in ground surveillance radars, another approach is emerging from manufacturers including Controp and Elbit. Both offer portable high performance optronics with very wide fields-of-view.

Controp’s Twister aims to reduce the tyranny of the so-called ‘soda straw’ effect by which optronics users can experience a reduction in peripheral vision. (Controp)

Designed to be carried, set up and operated by two people Controp’s Twister, launched at the Eurosatory exhibition held in Paris this June, scans through 360 degrees, updates its panoramic image every second and detects moving targets at ranges of up to three kilometres (1.6 miles): “There are a few manufacturers of this kind of equipment worldwide,” said Mr. Carni: “but as far as I know we are the only one that enables it to be portable.”

Image processing algorithms automatically detect moving human and other targets, while the thermal imaging camera’s continuous optical zoom lens enables the operator to use it in observation mode for target recognition and identification. The Twister also takes snapshots while continuing to record. With each detection it saves a track file to which the operator can refer for investigation in real-time, while the system continues to scan the designated area. The product can be operated locally from a laptop or remotely over an Ethernet or radio connection: “Twister provides a significantly more advanced and more cost-effective alternative to the high maintenance methods employed today – which typically rely on a network of cameras distributed along protective barriers, with images displayed on multiple screens”, he said. “With the TWISTER, the entire 360° panoramic picture is displayed on a single screen, which is much easier and simpler to control in the field.”

Elbit’s SupervisIR offers users a 90-degree field-of-view and rich visual detail, which the company states is the equivalent to around 150 standard thermal imagers. (Elbit Systems)

Elbit’s SupervisIR system is similar in concept, but differs in the detail as it has a staring sensor that provides a field-of-view measuring 90 degrees in azimuth and 12.5 degrees in elevation, which is equivalent to about 150 standard thermal imagers according to Shalom Binder of Elbit’s intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance division, who briefed Armada at Eurosatory where SupervisIR was launched. That very large very large field-of-view is achieved with a single camera containing a single detector. This is new technology, some of which is patented, Mr. Binder said, which enables the system “to extract dozens of megapixels” from that single detector.

SupervisIR also records everything and applies a layer of video analytic algorithms to detect and classify targets, marking them with red dots on the panoramic view, opening individual windows for each and enabling multiple operators to zoom in on different targets to investigate them: “It is not only a detection system like a radar”, he said: “it has inherent visual capability as a thermal imager.”

SupervisIR can be supported by external networked sensors, Mr. Binder explained: “For extra resolution you can slew a separate camera such as the (Elbit’s) LVCR-D … Pick an area of interest on the SupervisIR and slew the LVCR onto it,” he added: “The nice thing about it is that it’s not rotating, so it has a compact, lightweight, minimal footprint.” Together, the SupervisIR and LCVR-D form key elements of the company’s ISTAR-DS (Dismounted Solutions) concept, he told Armada, containing everything required to detect, locate, classify and identify targets and hand them off to attack platforms for prosecution: “We are aiming for a solution (to equip a) dismounted force; a team that takes all the equipment in their backpacks.”

Elbit illustrated the concept with a video in which a target was handed off to an Elbit Skylark-I/II UAV because there was a risk that line-of-sight from the ground observation post would be lost. The Skylark provide laser designation: “With this kind of solution, we can use many different kinds of attack options, whether laser guided, GPS-guided or statistical munitions such as artillery or mortars; you just have to get the target data to the weapon system.” With its in-house communications expertise, Elbit can provide any radios appropriate to the situation and the distance between the command post, the attacking platform and the supervising headquarters, he explained: “It’s modular, so the team can choose communication, observation and designation devices.”

Behind The Wall

The truism of reconnaissance is that it tells commanders what is over the next hill, but in urban combat in particular it often comes down onto what is behind a wall, in the next building or even in the next room. This is where masonry penetrating ultra-wideband radars such as the Xaver family from Camero come into their own and are attracting growing interest from counter-insurgency units in particular, as the company’s vice-president for business development, sales and marketing Ilan Abramovich explained: “Because of the current situation, you can see it in Europe and also in the US of course, people are much more aware of the requirements … There is growth in this market,” he added, “but I cannot say that I see anything dramatic.”

Operating over a continuous frequency band from three to ten gigahertz at very low power levels (even the most powerful version puts out less energy than a mobile phone), all members of the Xaver family can detect the tiny movements made by all living beings, humans and animals, including breathing and heartbeat through most common wall, floor and ceiling materials including clay, brick, stone, plaster, dry wall, cinder blocks, wood, glass and even reinforced concrete. The thickness it can penetrate varies with the wall material and the radars will not see through a continuous sheet of metal.

Camero produces a family of radars which are capable of looking through walls to observe humans, with the ability to penetrate a wide array of building materials, and to detect even the slightest of movements behind walls. (Camero)

The family consists of three products: the Xaver-800, which is a large, tripod-mounted, four-antenna system weighing 14.5kg (31.9lb) that provides thre-dimensional imaging primarily for ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) applications, the three-kilogram (6.6lb) Xaver-400 described as a compact tactical tool and the 0.6kg (1.3lb) Xaver-100, which is small enough to fit into a magazine pouch and can operated using one hand.

Multiple units can be networked wirelessly over the company’s XaverNet and controlled remotely from a tablet computer. Besides size and weight, the main differences between these radars are in the variety and detail of information displayed: The Xaver-100 has the simplest display, showing the presence of life in a room, its distance from the detector on simple range bars and the direction of its movement. Furthermore, it is clearly small enough to be issued as personal equipment, but Mr. Abramovich believes that they are not likely to be provided to every soldier, but rather at the group level for special forces and SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams: “If you go to the mass market, which is, let’s say, infantry brigades, it is only those modern armed forces that involve infantry brigades in urban fighting.”

With a maximum range of 20m (65ft), like its siblings, the Xaver-100 provides some stand-off capability, Mr. Abramovich emphasised: “If you want to observe behind a wall you can be ten metres (32.8ft) away and still have another ten metres inside the building in which you can tell what is happening,” he said: “Typically, users will reach the wall, detect what is happening and immediately react, in most cases.” The potential value of the radar in the ugly house-to-house and room-to-room fighting with explosive entry common in urban warfare is obvious. “OK, so you are very aggressive going in, but when you are inside you have to search. It could be a building, an apartment with many rooms, maybe a basement, maybe an attic,” Mr. Abramovich adds: “Somebody can hit you, somebody can jump out of a closet … or wait in the next room. With our system you can get the information. You can actually detect beyond more than one wall.”

The Xaver 100 has even been demonstrated on a small UAV to detect people through the roofs of buildings, on which the drone lands and stops its motors to eliminate unwanted movement and vibration so that the radar can detect the tiny movements it seeks.

Future Developments

With applications like this and micro-UAVs like the Proxdynamics Black Hornet, which Mr. Saxton noted has proved a game changer for dismounted reconnaissance, small unmanned systems are likely to play an even greater role in the foreseeable future. Asked to anticipate the mix of equipment available to a typical ‘first world’ reconnaissance platoon ten years hence, Mr. Saxton emphasised that the focus will remain on capturing and disseminating actionable information: “The gear to support that will focus on longer-range imaging, higher definition imaging for greater target detail, improved power systems, and secure communications systems that can handle the massive bandwidth required for sharing high definition video in real time.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Bahat expects more compact handheld observation and location devices, integration of laser designators, accurate image-based navigation and location capabilities and new search and track and detection systems. Mr. Carni ventured that video analytics will become a big issue because wide field-of-view cameras capture areas too large for the human brain to process as quickly as necessary. He said that future analytics should enable users to define the kinds of targets and target behaviour they would like to see, and have the system flag up only those targets, eliminating false alarms: “With all these automatic systems the big issue is false alarms; the big challenge is there.”