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Tiny Infrared Camera Promises Plethora of Uses

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

FORT BELVOIR, Va., Feb. 18, 2000 – A new, incredibly small infrared camera may soon join the military.

The UL3 alpha infrared camera is about the size of a D cell battery and weighs just six ounces, said Jim Campbell, deputy director of the Science and Technology Division at the Night Vision and Electronic Sensors directorate here.

The infrared camera's small size and abilities will make it useful for military and civilian markets, Campbell said. It can see through smoke, fog and the dark of night. At 190 grams-- about six ounces -- it's still too heavy. "Our goal is three ounces. We figure in about a year we’ll be there," Campbell said.

Campbell said the camera could be used to protect anti-tank mines. It was once standard practice to scatter anti- personnel mines in anti-tank minefields to hamper enemy mine-clearing crews.

“Now, since we can't use anti-personnel land mines, you have to have some other way to protect anti-tank mines,” he said. “We want to be able to put these out in a network with some acoustic or seismic sensors that would wake up the camera if something approached.” At that point, service members would be able to see and identify an approaching target and do the appropriate action.

Army researchers are working with Indigo Systems Corp. to develop the camera. Campbell said scientists would like to further reduce not only the camera's weight, but its size and power requirements. For instance, the camera now needs about 2.5 watts to work its three circuit boards. "We’d like to reduce it to one board, and when that happens we will make our weight and power goals,” Campbell said. Developers want to cut the juice to .5 watts.

DoD already has infrared cameras, but they are a lot larger and cost $20,000 to $25,000 each, he said. The new minicamera costs just under $1,000 and eventually will cost under $500, he noted. If developers can reach that cost goal the cameras will be considered "attritable."

“If it gets lost or damaged, you’re not worried about it,” Campbell explained. “We can easily replace it.”

Researchers have tested the camera aboard the camcopter unmanned aerial vehicle. “We could see soldiers through smoke at the Fort Benning, Ga. (urban terrain training) site,” Campbell said. “They appeared as hot spots through the smoke.

He said service members have suggested dozens of other scenarios for the camera. They suggested placing the cameras aboard unmanned ground vehicles. “One suggested putting it on helmets,” he said. Another asked why not attach the camera to a weapon and have it tethered back to helmet. They could fire around corners that way.”

One technical challenge service members would like to see overcome is the camera's field of vision. “Sometime you want a smaller field of view,” Campbell said. “Maybe they can switch lenses. These are things we need to address.”

The camera fills a need in the civilian world as well. “Firefighters need to see through smoke and fog also,” Campbell said. Some states have even passed legislation to fund infrared cameras for local fire departments. “With this camera, each firefighter could have one attached to the helmet. This could be a lifesaver in the civilian world.”

If fire departments do buy the camera in quantity, the costs to them and DoD would probably fall, too.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA quarter resting atop the housing gives an idea of how small the UL3 infrared camera is. (Army Photo)  
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