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Seize the Night

Photonics Spectra
Jun 2009
Forward-looking infrared (FLIR) systems have many applications.

David L. Shenkenberg, Features Editor,

With two wars raging in the Middle East, North Korea launching missiles, and pirates taking sailors hostage off the Horn of Africa, the need for nighttime surveillance has never been clearer. Often enemy combatants will use the cover of darkness to their advantage, and, with the sand blowing in the Middle East, it can be hard to see without infrared cameras.

In much of Afghanistan, there is simply a lack of ambient light. “I think the Afghanis invented darkness,” Lt. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck once said.

The first infrared cameras outfitted on aircraft faced downward, but pilots like to look straight ahead at their targets, so now it is more common to have infrared cameras facing forward toward the nose of the plane. These forward-looking infrared, or FLIR, cameras have been mounted on many types of airplanes, as well as on helicopters, tanks and ships. Military and law enforcement applications include search-and-rescue missions, detecting enemy soldiers and keeping an eye out for suspicious people.

Forward-looking infrared (FLIR) systems are connected to computer networks on the ground and in ships. Courtesy of the US Navy.

One popular FLIR system is the Litening made by Northrop Grumman under license from Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. of Haifa, Israel. In April, the Litening had accumulated a total of 1 million operational hours of use by the US military and allied militaries around the world. It competes with the Raytheon ATFLIR and Lockheed Martin Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod (ATP). All three are pods mounted to the exterior of the aircraft, and they contain a CCD television camera for viewing targets during the day as well as an infrared sensor for viewing targets at night.

The pods also contain a laser rangefinder that provides information related to navigation and target position as well as the position of projectile weapons fired from the aircraft. The camera can zoom in on the target, and, when weapons are not engaged, the camera can zoom out for a wide field of view. The FLIR systems used in aircraft can send real-time information to computer networks used by ground forces and ships.

From volcanology to swine flu

The US military continues to award contracts for the FLIR systems. Lockheed Martin received a $147 million contract in 2008 for more Sniper ATPs. The US Army recently awarded information technology company CACI International Inc. of Arlington, Va., about $40 million, which will be used largely to work on FLIR systems.

The F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet is one of the airplanes carrying Raytheon’s ATFLIR system. Courtesy of

Northrop Grumman recently received a $120 million contract from the US Air Force to develop the next generation of Litening pods for the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve Command and the US Marine Corps. The fourth-generation communications systems will have enhancements as well as a bay that enables them to accept a variety of data links without further modifications to the pod or aircraft.

A close-up is shown of the ATFLIR system on the Super Hornet. Courtesy of

FLIR systems have been used not only for military and law enforcement applications but also for tracking wild game, monitoring active volcanoes and determining the temperature at watersheds.

Although FLIR is a term that originally applied to aircraft, handheld infrared cameras have been used in numerous applications. For example, firefighters can use infrared cameras to find faulty electrical wiring or other sources of ignition. To save people money, the cameras can be used to detect energy loss in buildings. Some infrared cameras made by companies such as Flir Systems of Wilsonville, Ore., have been used to screen people in airports for swine flu.

This is a person with swine flu as detected by a thermal imager in an airport. Courtesy of Flir Systems.

Professors from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., have been developing FLIR systems for the US Army. They are developing miniature FLIR sensors with higher resolution than that provided by commercially available models and plan to integrate FLIR with sonar and lidar. The computing system will fuse the information and analyze the target as well as perform imaging.

The project is funded by a $2.365 million award to conduct research for the US Army. The engineers’ goal is to develop technology that will help soldiers wield better control when firing small arms, with capabilities including more accurate range tracking and more precise detection of moving targets. Other objectives include improved weight distribution, weight reduction, and power management and distribution. The original infrared cameras taken by soldiers onto the battlefield were large and heavy.

“We [were] proposing to develop an image-fused multiwavelength sensor system which combines target image information from different energy spectrums to produce a superior resultant image for visible display as well as target identification and range tracking,” said professor Victor Lawrence, who is also an associate dean.

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