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SiOnyx camera ‘aced’ US army tests

13 Jun 2013

Sensor operates in very dark conditions; supports sharing of night-vision video.

by Ford Burkhart
A super-sensitive night-vision camera built to see clearly on the darkest of moonless nights has passed a key military performance test says SiOnyx, the company that developed the “black silicon” sensor.

Under moonless clear night sky conditions, the SiOnyx ultra-low-light camera and sensor successfully captured images when the system was operated by the US Army, in a “test scene” at the Army’s premier agency for night vision technology, a company official said.

“This validated the system’s ability to image at 60 frames per second at 1 millilux,” said Martin Pralle, vice president of government programs at SiOnyx, which is based in Beverly, Massachusetts.

The device, called the XQE 1310, was first unveiled to the public at SPIE's Defense, Security and Sensing (DSS) exposition in Baltimore some six weeks ago. The military test has been completed since, and supports claims made at DSS, Pralle said.

The test conditions are carried out with a light level of just 1 millilux, a unit of brightness equal to 1x10-4 foot-candles. “It commonly replicates a moonless, starlit night in a rural environment - like a desert war zone,” Pralle said.

“That’s the point at which this becomes useful in a lot of military scenarios,” he added. “We did it in their labs, on their equipment. They controlled the amount of light. We now have independently validated the camera in the Army’s premier test site.”

Cheaper…and better
SiOnyx says that its digital night-vision sensor will cost less than similar technology available from other suppliers, as well as offer several advantages – including wireless transmission of video images between soldiers and back to central command, Pralle claims. “Other products provide information only to the user,” he said. “You see the image and it’s gone. You can’t do anything with it.”

By separating the imager from the display unit, the size can also be shrunk compared with earlier models featuring a long tube that would stick out in front of a soldier. The design reduces the weight on the soldier’s head, Pralle said.

In addition to three current military-oriented products, SiOnyx plans to announce a number of consumer applications in 2014 drawing on its core innovation: the enhanced infrared sensitivity of black silicon, which could see the technology used in computational imaging or biometrics.

The SiOnyx chips are fabricated by foundry partner Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), in Hsinchu, Taiwan, one of the world's largest sensor-focused foundries. The company licensed patents filed by a Harvard University team to adapt the CMOS chip fabrication process with steps to create the “black silicon”.

The process, Pralle says, yields light detection with a considerably better signal-to-noise ratio than conventional CMOS sensors, suitable for ultra-low-light imaging. The SiOnyx sensor is said to offer a ten-fold increase in sensitivity at 1064 nm, the wavelength of choice for many laser targeting applications.

The start-up's investors include the leading laser firm Coherent – whose lasers can be used to texture the black silicon – as well as Polaris Venture Partners, Vulcan Capital, Harris & Harris, Crosslink Capital, RedShift Ventures and the Central Intelligence Agency’s venture arm, In-Q-Tel.

About the Author

Ford Burkhart is a freelance journalist based in Tucson, Arizona.

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