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Protect and Project: Vision Part of Layered Defense Systems

POSTED 04/11/2011

 | By: Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor

From troubles in Pakistan and Afghanistan, to Iraq, and the Middle East “Spring,” machine vision is once again getting more attention from the defense and security establishments as a way to protect critical facilities while giving military operations new offensive tools in covert surveillance.

“When I go into a briefing now, I don’t have to spend the first 10 minutes explaining what short wave infrared [SWIR] is,” says Dr. Martin Ettenberg, Director Business Development & Research at Sensors Unlimited Inc., (Princeton, New Jersey), a part of Goodrich Corporation. “The technology is penetrating these markets, but that has also brought more competition in the SWIR which is good because it pushes us harder to innovate faster to remain in front.”

Top images show houses with lights on. The trees are still warm and ground has cooled off, and pavement is hotter. Third picture is a country club. If you only had thermal, you couldn’t know it’s a country club. But with SWIR, you can see the tennis courts. You can see darker spots in the parking lot in image #3 show where cars were but aren’t now. This is the beauty of combining shortwave infrared and thermal.Unlike most industrial machine vision applications, imaging systems are just one part of most military and commercial defense and security systems. The two applications share some commonality, but not all.

Military applications, for instance, can be both offensive – based on a soldier or mechanized platform – or defensive. The main difference between these two applications is that offensive systems typically need to be passive, using naturally occurring electromagnetic radiation (light), rather than active illumination from visible or infrared light sources. As infrared sights and goggles become more prevalent on the battlefield, an actively illuminated soldier or platform becomes the hunted rather than the hunter.

When it comes to defensive applications – often referred to as force protection or secure perimeter applications, depending on whether it’s a military or commercial installation – actively illuminated imaging systems can offer unique advantages because they can work at longer ranges with lower-cost components. In both cases, system designers realize that neither visible nor infrared imaging systems are a 100% solution. Today’s systems typically combine sensor types – fusing their strengths to complimentary benefit – whether it’s a long wave infrared sensor combined with a visible camera on a soldier’s weapon sight, or a combination of ground radar, fence sensors, SWIR, and near infrared (NIR) used to protect a facility.

Military Defense: The Careful Customer With Big Pockets

While the governments around the world may ponder the need to cut defense spending to help with deficits, the reality of the world doesn’t always accommodate the desires of men. The U.S. and UK currently have troops in three active ‘war’ zones. And those soldiers need protection.

“While most of our revenues have been from the commercial sector, there is a lot of potential for military applications,” explains Chris Ruttle, CFO/COO of VUMII Inc. “It just takes them a long time to pull the trigger.”

VUMII, which was recently acquired by Opgal, recently was chosen as one of eight technologies out of 150 applicants to be accepted as part of the multi-sensor solution in response to the Joint Force Protection Advanced Security System (JFPASS) program. “Whether it’s formal programs like JFPASS or discreet programs in the military or commercial space, multisensor solutions are the future. With a multisensory approach, you counteract the downside of any single sensor and get closer to the Holy Grail, which is improving your detection capabilities while keeping false alarms low.”

VUMII’s two active illumination products, Discoverii™ and Claritii™, use focused IR lasers and IR LED arrays with NIR cameras to extend the identification capabilities of perimeter security systems out to 3 km at night, while still providing color images during the day. “With active illumination, you can recognize a face, read markings on a vehicle, etc.,” explains Ruttle. “When used in combination with fence sensors, ground radar, thermal systems for detection or seismic sensors – anything that provides detection capability – these other sensors can trigger our system and slue the camera to the potential threat. With our range and active illumination, the guards can interrogate the threat early and see if it’s something to worry about or not. But because of our active illumination, we’re not used in covert or offensive roles.”

Being selected for programs such as JFPASS often depends on the definitions of three words: detection, identification, and recognition. “When it comes to thermal cameras, you typically use the Johnson criteria, which states you need six pixels on an object to identify it. With our active illumination systems, such as Discoverii, we say that at 3000 meters, we’ll have 30 pixels on a 1.8m human target.” Other sensors and technologies provide detection, we provide identification. VUMII’s cameras include image processing capabilities on board for camera control and image optimization, but they leave the video analytics to other systems, including the command and control software. “That’s why we’ve created an ecosystem of other suppliers we work with that can provide the detection, recognition, license plate reading, facial recognition, and overall command and control software to form a complete system that solves the needs of each unique application and installation and made sure that our software integrates well with major security system integrators and their software, such as American Dynamics,” explains Ruttle.

Best Defense is Good Offense

Sensors Unlimited, which sells both NIR and SWIR cameras, has helped military customers go on the offensive because of SWIR’s ability to work without active illumination. “Long wave and short wave offer a great combination of strengths,” notes Ettenberg. “Long wave – even at low resolution is fantastic for detection, but you don’t have the context of what you’re seeing. Short wave gives you contextual information at high resolution, but it’s not great for detection. Long wave is also not good at dusk, during thermal cross over when the environmental temperature is close to the temperature of the potential target [see photo]; SWIR is great at thermal cross over, but not so great in the darkest night in passive mode where LWIR works very well. SWIR is also great at seeing through fog and smoke, which visible cameras can’t do.”

The short wave infrared can also aid in thermal cross over scenarios. Thermal crossover is simply a point where the temperature of the object you are trying to image is equivalent to the temperature of the background. In the images below, taken at sunrise, the details of the shoreline and the water are lost when imaged with a long wave IR camera. At this point, a SWIR camera detects the reflected light, not the temperature - making the shoreline stand out, and also capturing more detail then a visible camera.

“You could do this completely software, but security cameras don’t have the luxury of a PC, so image processing chips are used for fusion” says Ettenberg. Then when you add video analytics from companies such as SightLogix, you have a powerful, complete system.”

Protecting Commerce

While industry and infrastructure don’t typically need covert imaging systems – everyone knows where a chemical plant is located; it’s no secret – the threat of attacks in Europe and the Middle East driving these markets to image fusion solutions.

VUMII has made most of its business from the commercial versus the military side of the security business. “These installations are looking for many of the same things the military wants when it comes to defensive installations,” explains Ruttle. “But they’re also looking for a better return on investment, while the military focuses mainly on performance. If we can replace multiple, shorter range cameras with one camera that sees in the day and night, and eliminate the costly infrastructure running between those cameras, then our solution becomes cost effective to the customer. Plus, with active illumination, we can provide images that are of sufficient quality to be used in court, which is important to commercial interests.”

As security hardware improves and drops in cost, and software gets better at fusing together data streams from multiple sensors, imaging companies that specialize in this area are gaining traction in an growing market segment. “Overseas markets tend to move to the order point faster than U.S. companies,” notes Ruttle. “I think that’s mainly because the U.S. hasn’t had a major security incident for 10 years now. If I could give some advice to machine vision companies looking to enter this market, they need to remember that an industrial camera can’t necessarily make the move to a security system without additional engineering. Security works in uncontrolled environments, with varying lighting, bad weather, and more. It’s not just a matter of taking an off the shelf machine vision camera, tweaking it a little, and mounting it on a pole.”