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DARPA seeks low-cost, multi-band imagers for troops

06 Nov 2012

Agency wants to provide soldiers with portable imaging kit operating in the visible, near-infrared and thermal ranges.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is launching a new program aimed at providing soldiers with cameras operating across visible, near-infrared and thermal IR frequencies.

In a broad agency announcement (BAA) outlining the aims of the program, the agency says that it wants participants to develop low-cost cameras that can be helmet- or weapon-mounted, to aid with threat detection, recognition and identification, night and day and in all weather and visibility conditions.

The cameras will be developed under the “PIXNET” (pixel network for dynamic visualization) program, addressing what the agency describes as a technology gap currently impacting the ability of soldiers to make tactical decisions at the squad level.

“This program aims to develop enabling technologies for two types of PIXNET cameras: helmet-mounted and a clip-on weapon sight,” states the BAA. Either type, with a maximum weight of two pounds, would then be integrated with a commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) display that is appropriate for the troops to use.

Each camera will be wirelessly linked to an Android smart phone that can serve as an additional platform for multi-band image fusion, DARPA adds, enabling relevant data processing and image display, and helping to reduce the data and power budget of the camera.

$3300 cost goal
The BAA stresses the need to develop a scalable process to achieve small pixel pitches, and a low-cost approach to providing the necessary optics and integration, inside a compact housing.

The goal is for each camera to cost no more than $3300 when produced in a volume manufacturing environment.

That will be helped by the fact that, as DARPA acknowledges, the basic technology needed already exists and is widely used by warfighters. The difficulty is that the devices typically have dedicated functionality, operate independently of each other and are only really useful to the individual operator.

Through PIXNET, the agency is aiming to fuse the capabilities of the different imaging devices into a single, multi-band system, meaning that troops have less to carry, and can easily share the imagery with their colleagues.

Nibir Dhar, DARPA’s program manager for PIXNET, said in a statement announcing the solicitation: “Existing sensor technologies are a good jumping-off point, but PIXNET will require innovations to combine reflective and thermal bands for maximum visibility during the day or night, and then package this technology for maximum portability.”

“What we really need are breakthroughs in aperture design, focal plane arrays, electronics, packaging and materials science. Success will be measured as the minimization of size, weight, power and cost of the system and the maximization of functionality.”

In addition to technological innovation, proposers are encouraged to develop plans for transitioning the low-cost camera system into manufacturing – with the $3300 cost goal based on the assumed production of 10,000 units per month.

Proposals for the PIXNET projects must be submitted to DARPA by 11 January 2013.

• The BAA from DARPA follows a small business technology transfer (STTR) proposal from the US Air Force in September which called for participants to devise new types of optical sensors based on the complex eyes that have evolved in insects.

Rather than ground troops, however, those sensors are wanted for future generations of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or “drones”, where they could offer not just visual information, but also recognize and track targets, and provide directional sensing from polarization phenomena.

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