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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Apache Helicopters in Full Scale Production with Intevac’s Digital Night Vision

By Joe Ambrogne

Digital night vision capability is now in the hands of Apache helicopter pilots. Following a $27 million contract signed in June 2013, the U.S. Army has begun equipping its Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopter fleet with a state-of-the-art digital night vision systems provided by Intevac. Designated the M611 camera, this system was designed as part of the U.S. Army’s Apache Modernized Target Acquisition Designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision Sensor (M-TADS/PNVS) program. It promises to give pilots an increased visual acuity and electronic capability already proven on fighter jets, but never before seen on military rotorcraft.

The ISIE-11 sensor used in Intevac’s extreme low-light products. Photos courtesy of Intevac Photonics
The core technology of the Intevac Photonics product line is the electron bombarded active pixel sensor (EBAPS), a CMOS image sensor that collects high-resolution digital images in the visible to near-infrared spectrum. Due to its size and weight, the EBAPS has already allowed Intevac to supplement a range of products prior to the M611 — including weapon sights and helmet-mounted cameras used by the latest generation fighter aircraft — without adding the complex components traditionally used for analog night vision devices.

EBAPS technology was first introduced to military aviators as part of an integrated helmet display used by F-35 pilots. The helmet’s ISIE-10 (Intevac silicon integrated engine 10) sensor system intended to give pilots visibility in extreme low-light conditions, but was abandoned due to latency and visual acuity problems. However, the company developed a second helmet display using the vastly superior ISIE-11, a 60 Hz sensor that the Army believes has met all of the requirements for replacing the analog tubes used in its current night vision devices for aviation pilotage.

The M611, which contains the ISIE-11 sensor, is a forward-looking low-light camera mounted on the Apache’s upper PVNS nose turret. The images it collects are transmitted to the pilot’s integrated helmet and display sight system (IHADSS), a digital monocle mounted on the pilot’s helmet. The IHADSS with night video display, effectively replaces the binocular analog night vision goggles in use today, providing a host of physical benefits to the pilot: it relieves upper back and neck strain caused by larger and heavier goggles, prevents the effective blindness caused by a malfunctioning system, and eliminates the traditional goggles’ narrow field of view.

The M611 camera used on U.S. Army Apaches.
But the real benefits of the M611 camera come from its ISIE-11 digital system. Unlike analog image intensification systems, the ISIE-11 can be integrated with other electronic devices onboard the Apache. The pilot can zoom in or out, record real-time videos, view status menus, and overlay his enhanced image with digital graphics from a targeting computer or other external source. This, according to Intevac Photonics Executive VP Andres Brugal, makes the ISIE-11 a game changer for military pilots. “I often equate it to when 35 mm wet film cameras went to digital,” says Brugal. “People at first didn’t understand the benefits of it, and now you can’t imagine not using a digital camera because of all the things you can do with that technology.”

Flight-testing for the Apache M611 camera began in 2012, with full-scale production in 2013. The Army reports positive results with the technology. “The feedback that we’ve received from Apache pilots is that it’s a tremendous step up from anything they’ve seen before,” Brugal stated.

Currently, Intevac is in the development stages for adapting its Digital Goggle, which will also feature the ISIE-11 sensor, for use in land and air operations. Brugal, a retired U.S. Navy captain and fighter pilot, has logged close to 450 hours flying at night with goggles in the cockpit of an F-14. He knows first-hand the value of night-vision systems in aviation. “When I flew at night,” says Brugal, “every noise was accentuated. You were always concerned that any blinking light was going to explode the airplane. Suddenly, all of those spooks and gremlins go away with the goggles.”

Related: NVG News 

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