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08/02/11 Tactical Night Vision and Active Infrared LED Emitters

Article- July 2011 By Larson

Larson Electronics LEDLB-20-IR-M Magnetic Mount IR Emitter

One of the most common and universal facts of warfare is that nighttime operations are always going to be more challenging and less effective than those taking place during daylight hours. The lack of available light creates difficulties with performing visual location and identification as well as targeting and kill confirmations and thus reduces the effectiveness and value of nighttime operations. Additionally, the lack of ambient light provides cover for enemy targets and makes tracking their movements and activity a magnitude of times harder. The US military understood as far back as World War 2 that whoever could operate at night as effectively as they do the day, would have a major tactical advantage. Thus, heavy military development of technology such as the cathode ray tube produced imaging equipment that was capable of not only using light to produce an image, but using light from ends of the light spectrum not normally visible to human beings to produce images. This technology formed the very beginnings of night vision technology and was, like most mid 1940’s electronics, cumbersome, bulky and crude.


Early night vision devices were underpowered and not very effective in gathering and amplifying ambient light and light from the invisible infrared ends of the light spectrum. As a result, such devices were part of a two part system that required the inclusion of an infrared light source in order to achieve useful effectiveness, which now commonly known as active infrared night vision. Although a poor system by modern standards, such systems at the time represented a huge advantage over an enemy without it. However, while a great advancement at the time, such an advantage was short lived as the enemy quickly learned to use their own infrared sensing equipment to locate units using such active infrared systems and attack them. This led to further military development of night vision technology that could eventually amplify ambient light enough to produce useable images without the need for an external IR light source. These systems too were crude by modern standards, but effective enough for use during the Vietnam conflict and eventually led to what became known as Starlight systems, which represent what is known as passive night vision systems.


Today’s night vision technology is several orders advanced beyond the early systems and capable of producing images of surprising detail and clarity even in almost lightless conditions. The most advanced systems are reserved for military , law enforcement and Federal use only and make up what is known as Generation 4 night vision technology. Obviously, earlier systems are then known as Generation 3, 2 and of course 1. Generation three systems make up the majority of equipment available to the public and is quite effective for such non tactical application. However, no matter how advanced, as with any system that relies on light energy to form an image, the amount of available ambient light both visible and infrared has direct effect on the quality of the images produced, and so very low light conditions where almost no ambient light is present tend to result in severely degraded night vision performance. In applications where complete stealth is not required, passive night vision systems can still benefit from an active infrared light source. As a result, most military units equipped with night vision technology also include some form of active infrared illumination to augment their night vision systems when necessary.


Although it is still possible for the enemy to use their own infrared systems and infrared ocular devices to detect active infrared emissions, employing an external IR light source remains highly effective for many operations. In areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan where the opposing forces have limited access to advanced technologies, and the safety of civilian participants during night operations is paramount, including an infrared light source with 4th generation night vision systems has the ability to greatly increase operational successes while maintaining the lowest amount of non combatant incidents possible. Since infrared night vision systems are not exclusively relegated to offensive actions, but also useful for enforcing curfews, avoiding detection by non combatants who may otherwise cause unintended interference, powerful IR light sources remain an important part of operations despite the ease with which they can be detected.


Currently, producing infrared illumination requires specially designed luminaries which in tactical operations usually consist of an HID light source equipped with special filters to only allow light in the invisible infrared spectrum to pass through. Although fairly effective, such systems waste a great deal of power producing visible light which is wasted, and are often still somewhat visible as some visible light escapes. Additionally, these IR light sources tend to run very hot, are easily damaged by impacts and shocks, and have short lifepspans which reduce operational life and increase maintenance issues. LED technology has reduced most of these problems and now allows the production of IR light sources that require no filters and can produce IR radiation exclusively. Since no light is blocked by a filter, infrared LED systems emit 100% of their energy as infrared light energy which greatly improves effectiveness. LED systems also produce little heat, and are very durable and resistant to damage.


 Of added benefit with infrared LED emitters like Magalights’ LEDLB-20-IR-M LED IR Illuminator Light are the reduced power requirements and versatility that LEDs offer. Drawing only one quarter as much current as a comparable incandescent IR light source, these infrared LED light emitters contain solid state drivers which allow the unit to operate with a wide range of voltages without the need for any additional hardware. In military applications where electrical systems commonly run with 24 and 48 volts DC and power sources are usually limited, this efficiency and versatility is a great benefit as it extends operational times and greatly improves equipment interchangeability.


As with most technology, improvements in night vision systems continue to appear on a regular basis, requiring units to keep abreast of the latest in development to maintain crucial advantages. LEDs represent one of the latest and most effective additions to night vision systems and as LED technology continues to expand and improve so too will the effectiveness of NVI systems.

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