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Dec 28, 2023 | 03:39 pm 703 0

Military aviation and night vision. History and prospects

Military aviation and night vision. History and prospects

One of the most critical and high-status units of any army worldwide is the Air Force. Engineers create ultra-modern airplanes and helicopters equipped with night vision devices to meet their needs. They make aircraft universal and capable of performing combat missions at any time of the day. The relationship between night vision and military aviation goes back several decades, during which many significant events occurred. We will talk about them in our article and also talk about development prospects for the coming years.

History of night vision in military aviation

The military industry is the undisputed leader in implementing various innovative developments. Its representatives are the first to test interesting inventions that could give an advantage over the enemy. In this regard, it is not surprising that night vision initially became available only to the military. The first developments in this direction occurred during World War II, but night vision appeared in military aviation a little later. This happened in the 50s of the last century. Initially, the devices created were intended for other purposes, but gradually, they began to be involved in certain types of work on which the success of Air Force operations depends. However, it was yet to be available to airplane and helicopter pilots. The job of engineers in the 50s was to create universal optics that would make it possible to conduct military-sounding and astronomical research at night (at that time, navigation was so poorly developed that pilots often had to navigate by the stars). Hundreds of studies and experiments have been conducted with image enhancement obtained under minimal illumination conditions.

The results of the engineers' work became visible in the late 50s. At this time, the first tests of infrared binoculars on helicopters were carried out. This device was supposed to capture infrared light from a landing light installed on the ground. If this could be done, then the helicopter pilot would typically be able to see the landing site even on a cloudy night. The results of numerous experiments were considered unsatisfactory, and the invention was sent for revision. Around this time, several prominent US research laboratories were working on an electron multiplier project, which became the predecessor of the microchannel plate. The latter is even used today in many night optics for military and civilian purposes.

In the 60s of the 20th century, full-fledged first-generation night optics appeared. To enhance the image, she used the light available at night, provided by various objects in the sky. This was an essential moment in the history of night vision, but such an invention was unsuitable for military aviation. The reason for this was the structure's large size and considerable weight. At the same time, various infantry units actively began to use the new development. A few years later, second-generation models appeared. They were also intended exclusively for infantrymen. Despite this, some of the most influential models have been tested by pilots flying at night. Binoculars were most often used in military aviation. The most diminutive possible dimensions and lightweight distinguished them.

In the 70s, there came a turning point. The US Air Force began limited use of night optics for the first time. This was officially announced in 1973. The Army-Navy Portable Visual Search (AN/PVS) adopted for service was equipped with a second-generation electro-optical converter. These devices had many shortcomings, but it was with them that the history of night vision in military aviation officially began. The main problem with such optics was low efficiency and poor lighting conditions. Disadvantages also included the weight and difficulty combining with a helicopter pilot’s mask. 

Another significant problem was the incompatibility of night optics with the lighting systems installed in the cockpit. It took three years to eliminate all the shortcomings. 1976, the ineffective AN/PVS was replaced with AN/AVS. This night vision system was created specifically for military aviation pilots. A miniature night vision binocular is fixed on the helmet and located directly in front of the pilot’s eyes. This device used a third-generation electro-optical converter. Also, changes compared to AN/PVS affected such aspects as performance, reliability, and interchangeability of various design parts.

In the 1980s, AN/AVS began to be used on most military helicopters. Each model had its version of night vision systems, which made their operation more efficient. At the same time, using AN/AVS by aircraft pilots has only been a dream. The main obstacle to this was the lighting in the cabin, which used incandescent lamps. The light they create would prevent pilots using night vision from flying the aircraft safely. The problem was fixed in 1981. At this time, the command of the Air Force decided to change the basic lighting requirements in an aircraft's cockpit. From this point on, they started using AN/AVS-compatible lights. In subsequent years, many models of night vision devices were released, intended for military aircraft pilots. Some did not pass tests, while others even led to plane crashes. In this regard, in 1989, the issue of banning the use of night optics in military aviation flights was considered. However, it was decided to continue modernizing and using night vision devices.

In the 90s, military aviation began to use the so-called NVG HUD. These night head-up displays were mounted on the aircraft pilot's helmet and provided clear vision at night. They are compatible with cockpit lighting, so their operation does not hurt flight safety. Such equipment was installed only on a few aircraft capable of reaching relatively low speeds. They created their own night vision devices for high-speed aircraft. Their high efficiency distinguished them during fast movement. The use of such models has led to specific problems with pilot safety. In the event of an ejection, they created the possibility of hitting various parts of the aircraft and causing severe head injuries. To eliminate this shortcoming, it was not the redesigned night vision device but the airplane. This is how a new model of a high-speed aircraft appeared, designed for night flights. The gradual expansion of the range of tasks of a military aviation pilot has led to the fact that he lacked the existing field of view in some cases. In this regard, the use of panoramic night vision goggles was permitted. Their viewing angle is 2.5 times higher, which solved the existing problem.

At the beginning of the new century, the development of night vision devices did not stop. The main goal of modernizing existing models was to reduce the size of the spilling part of the optics. Theoretically, this would give the pilot greater freedom of action and increase his comfort. However, the low-profile night vision goggles created were less prevalent in practice. Although they have become more compact (due to the tight fit to the pilot’s face) compared to their predecessors, there have been no significant changes in terms of comfort for military pilots. From 2010-2020, many exciting models of night optics were released, which became popular among air force representatives. The most attractive project was developing a night vision device built into a helmet. According to the authors, such equipment has a transparent projection display, which is installed instead of the protective glass of the helmet. It makes it possible to quickly switch from day to night mode, enabling the pilot to perform combat missions at any time of the day efficiently. This development, like many others, is at the testing stage. Therefore, we should expect a new phase in the history of night vision in military aviation shortly.

Application of night vision in today's military aviation

The Air Force is an important branch that performs many complex missions. Almost all of them can benefit from night vision. It enables efficient flight in all lighting conditions and helps pilots cope with their dangerous work.

Options for using night vision:

  1. Patrolling. Military aviation often patrols a particular area to prevent unauthorized aircraft entry or ensure critical facility security. Most often, the air borders of a state are patrolled, during which accidental or non-accidental violations by military aircraft of neighboring countries are detected. In cases where such work is performed in the dark, night vision will come in handy. In addition, it will be helpful in adverse weather conditions, due to which visibility is significantly impaired. Thanks to the capabilities of night vision systems, military aircraft pilots can safely perform various maneuvers and monitor the patrolled area.
  2. Accompaniment. Very often, top officials of various states hold business meetings, during which they solve many global problems and strengthen interaction between both parties. During such visits, the planes of VIP guests are often accompanied by military aircraft. It ensures the safety of important government officials and allows them to reach their destination without any trouble. Such support is critical in cases where top officials fly to initially unfriendly countries. In all of these cases, night vision will enable pilots, even in the dark, to monitor the situation around the VIP’s aircraft and stop any attempts to attack.
  3. Intelligence. The success of any military operation largely depends on quality reconnaissance. It makes it possible to identify the enemy’s weak points and strike at them. Also, the information obtained during the survey will become invaluable material for conducting successful defensive actions. In some cases, military aircraft are used to obtain intelligence data. It helps the command get vital data on the characteristics and coordinates of strategically essential enemy targets. Also, with the help of military aviation, the enemy’s combat potential and the number of soldiers or equipment are assessed. Night surveys have become the most effective and safest for pilots. During its implementation, night vision systems are always used. Their capabilities give pilots good visibility and allow them to obtain high-quality photos or video materials.
  4. Support of ground troops. One of the main tasks of military aviation is supporting various ground forces units. This process makes it possible to successfully carry out offensive actions or increase the chances of defending occupied lines. In addition to the survey, military aviation often serves as an artillery fire spotter. Recently, this work has been carried out using drones, but they still need to plan to abandon aircraft use completely. Another essential task of military aviation is to escort and cover ground troops performing various maneuvers or redeploying. If military aviation work is done in the dark, then night vision is used in each task. It gives pilots a high-quality picture and provides essential information for specific actions.
  5. Destruction of ground and air targets. Military aviation is often the main striking force during various combat operations. With its help, they destroy enemy planes and helicopters, blow up air defense systems, and attack military equipment and enemy soldiers. In some cases, military aircraft bomb various populated areas where there may be a large number of enemy troops. Pilots use night vision systems in all situations where such operations are carried out in poor visibility conditions. They make it possible to see the surrounding environment and correctly determine the coordinates of their primary goals. In addition, during the bombing, night optics help to avoid large numbers of civilian casualties.

Development prospects

Today, military aviation is a universal means to achieve various goals. It can handle multiple tasks equally effectively, day or night. This was gained through night vision, which is developing parallel to military aviation. Their symbiosis has long become a modern reality, but the peak effectiveness of their relationship is still far away. In this regard, we can confidently say that night vision in military aviation has good prospects. These days, there are several of the most pressing areas of modernization. Shortly, all of them will help create night optics that will make airplanes and helicopters of the Air Force the most effective combat units.

The most attractive option seems to be conducting unmanned flights of military aircraft and helicopters. Thousands of engineers are working in this direction to achieve their goals quickly. To do this, it is necessary to modernize aircraft and night vision systems. This is the only way to achieve the desired effect and make unmanned flights possible under lighting conditions. Suppose information about the ongoing work to improve military aircraft is unavailable to us (due to compliance with the secrecy regime). In that case, modernizing night optics can be seen with your own eyes. First, you should pay attention to creating devices that can cope with their tasks equally well under any lighting conditions. This versatile equipment can independently detect and adapt to the various nuances of current light conditions. If this can be achieved, then night flights of military aviation will become possible without a person. In this case, the system can independently adjust various settings to achieve the highest possible image quality. It will become the basis for the autopilot’s decision-making and help it avoid severe mistakes. Developments in this direction are being carried out quite actively. Many of them are undergoing testing, but there are no concrete results. The only clear thing is that using military aviation without pilots is lovely, so they will not refuse it.

Modern night vision systems are bulky structures. They include numerous night devices mounted on the aircraft's fuselage, various devices in the cockpit, and hundreds of auxiliary elements hidden inside the airplane or helicopter. All this is a severe problem that they will try to solve in the next few years. In the future, engineers will be able to create night vision equipment that will be relatively small in size. It will make military planes and helicopters more maneuverable and faster (due to reduced weight and air resistance). By creating more compact night vision systems, it will be possible to save space inside the aircraft. It will help install various new products to help the pilot feel more comfortable and safe.

Today, night vision will forever remain an essential element of the control system of military aircraft and helicopters. In connection with this prospect, improving the various indicators of the optics used is necessary. The main one will be the durability of the equipment. Theoretically, it will be achieved by improving the quality of components and changing the characteristics of the materials used in their production. The latter must have many additional properties, thanks to which they can withstand increased loads characteristic of all military aviation flights. There may be other ways to improve the durability of night vision systems in the future, but it is too early to think about them. However, suppose you mentally travel back in time and imagine the existence of the most durable night optics installed on military aircraft. In that case, you can immediately identify the advantages of such changes. The main one will be the ability to use night vision systems without replacements or major repairs throughout the entire period of operation of the military aircraft. This will significantly simplify the work of aircraft maintenance services and will also save a lot of money. The remaining funds can be used for other critical military projects.

Military aviation often operates in extreme lighting conditions, so its pilots need to be able to use night vision systems. The latter must create an image of the highest possible quality, in which all essential details can be distinguished. In the coming years, this area will also become critical in developing interaction between night optics and military aviation. In theory, it will improve the safety of night flights and make them possible even in abysmal visibility. To enhance image quality, specialists will strive not to increase its resolution to the maximum but to reduce the number of defects. How this will be achieved has yet to be discovered, but we can guarantee that the optimal solution will be found shortly. If such an ambitious goal can be achieved, a sharp reduction in defects will make the generated image clear and detailed. On it, pilots of military aircraft and helicopters will be able to see any little thing that can affect the quality and safety of their flights.

These days, the Marine Corps and other units of the US Army are testing an interesting new product that could be useful in military aviation. It is a device that perfectly combines all the advantages of a thermal imager and standard night optics. Such equipment makes it possible to form two images simultaneously and superimpose them on each other. The result is between thermal and standard images visible in any NVD. On the display of such optics, the contours of various objects become visible, which greatly simplifies their identification and separation from the general background. This exciting development can become indispensable for military aviation pilots. With its help, identifying even well-camouflaged enemy targets (for example, military equipment hidden among trees) will be significantly simplified. In addition, thanks to the simplified identification of objects, it will be possible to reduce the likelihood of accidental destruction of civilian infrastructure in cases where military operations are carried out within the city. It is not yet known whether there are plans to introduce such a development into military aviation. However, the prospects of seeing her there are good.

Night vision systems designed for military aviation are pretty expensive equipment. This is due to the many night optics and auxiliary elements. The gradual modernization of devices will inevitably lead to the need to make specific changes to the design. This will result in more compact systems where each element can perform several tasks. This will help gradually reduce the price of such equipment and make it available to the air forces of less wealthy countries. Shortly, night vision in military aviation will be able to be used by everyone, significantly increasing the efficiency of various aircraft. Also, the presence of night optics will make flights at night safer.

Modern military aviation cannot do without night vision devices. They have been used on military aircraft and helicopters for a long time, so they have passed the stage of their formation and climbed to the peak of development. This was facilitated by the improvement of night optics, which continues today. It is unknown what awaits us shortly, but there is no doubt that night vision technology will continue to be actively used in aviation, bringing many benefits to the Air Force.

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