There is no doubt that increasingly compact night vision cameras and optics have changed the style of warfare and law enforcement and a host of other activities.
However, as revolutionary as these systems have been, they have historically been restricted to creating monochrome imagery that could make it hard to discover many vital details at even moderate ranges.
In recent years, though, there have been considerable developments in technology, which makes it feasible to see in full color and in the dark, making it simpler to quickly identify objects of interest and radically increase a user's overall situational awareness.
For decades now, there's been steady research and development into what is typically described as "color night vision."
In the past ten years, many different manufacturers have started to market more functional systems on the industrial marketplace, and the technology is already in use in army and security applications, amongst others.
SPI Corporation's X27 Osprey full-motion camera is an excellent example of how far technology has come.
It provides impressive color imagery in very low-light-level conditions. It's tough to think that the videos below were taken at midnight in their respective locations.
The first real patient night vision units, which emerged in the 1960s, utilized an image intensification "tube" to catch any available photons of ambient light and then "excite" these particles. These exciting light particles go through this process multiple times. The resulting "picture" then ends up propelled onto what is effectively a small screen at the opposite end of the machine. It looks much brighter to the human eye, thereby making the whole scene visible in low-light situations.
Decades of research imply that these systems can now amplify smaller amounts of light and create higher fidelity imagery.
These days, the current generation of night vision optics will also be able to quickly and automatically account for variations in ambient light. It prevents the user from becoming blinded if things become brighter or losing the image altogether, even temporarily, if the available light drops.
But the picture in the majority of the night vision systems in use today is usually available in monochrome, generally with a stereotypical green tinge. This is because the systems are not sensitive enough to capture enough light to amplify into a color picture in extremely low-light-level conditions.
Consider this kind of walking into a mostly darkened room. You might have the ability to recognize a few objects, but your mind can't make a vibrant color picture.
This traditional vision imagery can make it tough to isolate and recognize particular details on a goal to help identify it.
In an army or law enforcement context, this is important as it can make it tough to tell a threatening person from an innocent bystander or a truck with some odd cargo from a vehicle with a mounted weapon. It may make it problematic to distinguish between friendly and unfriendly forces in the middle of a firefight.
Many higher-end color night vision systems, like the X27, in addition to Canadian company Lorex's safety cameras, distribute with the image intensification tube in support of an extremely sensitive, digital complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) imaging sensor. These interpret photons into electrons that an algorithm decodes to make a digital image.
CMOS technology is usually found in commercial digital cameras, also, that have themselves steadily become more effective at taking more explicit pictures in low-light situations. SPI says it's the expert low-light-level system that can magnify existing light over 85,000 times its brightness.
Large Pixel pitch sizes allow the processor to collect ultra-intense amounts of light and interpret photons to a clear, clean, bright picture in very dark night scenes. The low light color technology of X27 uses advanced algorithms that enable the sensor to view ultra-low light conditions traditionally dark before.
The X27 can display targeting lasers in color and infrared marking, allowing people to rapidly distinguish between various targets. In principle, the SPI CMOS sensor could work together with other current digital optics, also.
There is a lower end to the technology, which involves adding filters to image common image intensification practices, such as night-vision goggles.
CVA-14 by ColorTAC is one such system. It's specially designed to work with the AN/PVS-14 night vision monocular, which will be in service in the U.S. army and elsewhere, both as a weapon sight or as a helmet-mounted system.
The clip-on CVA-14 adds two rotating color filters in the front and the back of the AN/PVS-14. Ambient light then moves through the system's intensifier tube as usual but gets spit out in this manner that the human brain can decode it as though it was in "near-true color.
True color night vision systems still require a specific amount of ambient light to operate in color as infrared illuminators don't help bright an area even at close range. So these systems can not work in total darkness without another source of visible light.
One method to help mitigate this, at least in part, is by mixing the image by a color night vision camera with the one by a thermal imager, infrared camera, or another sort of optical sensor, each of which might have the ability to detect different details.
These kinds of fused images have the potential to be even more comprehensive and higher fidelity, allowing the user to determine highly specific attributes or also writing on items in some particular cases. Developing a multi-wavelength infrared capability and self-indulgent multi-spectral optic with color night vision might be another choice.
This doesn't change that color night vision offers significant benefits though it will not work in every condition. Seeing in color is just what the human is used to, and so a general individual can mentally process what they're viewing faster with these systems. This more "natural" vision may further reduce the change of a loss of conditional awareness, vertigo, and other issues that conventional night vision goggles can occasionally cause, particularly in airborne applications.
This would also provide significant advantages in the future if paired with distributed vision systems on aircraft or ground vehicles, like the Distributed Aperture System (DAS) on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Northrop Grumman's Silent Watch for boats or Israeli company Elbit's Iron Vision for tanks.
The U.S. Army is currently working on mixing imagery from thermal weapon sights with the image of a single individual soldier's views by their night vision goggles.
Adding color night vision into the mix would enable troops, automobile drivers, mariners, and pilots to acquire vision imagery projected onto straight onto the wide-area or helmet-mounted displays. Commercial items and private citizens may use equipment to help in flying or driving at night.
For military persons, having the ability to call out targets or ask for positive identification from other surrounding objects based on colors and other features can only help with "mental contrast," also, speeding up and otherwise improving different targeting processes. Color night vision technology will possibly only expand the entire potential of augmented reality systems on the battlefield and elsewhere as time passes on, in general.
Color night vision is a game-changing capability on top of already revolutionary development. The aim now is to proceed to make the technology practical, increasingly high fidelity, compact, and able to operate even in very low-light-level situations.
It may not be long until the image we have all of military and law enforcement organizations managing operations at night within the green mist of their night goggles becomes a thing of the past.