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Cost, Capability Come Together to Boost Military-Security Imaging

POSTED 02/15/2016  | By: Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor

In the salad days of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the U.S. military industrial complex was an excellent market for technology companies. The military’s specific requirements fueled R&D for smaller companies in machine vision and other tech sectors, while providing a guaranteed, long-term customer for solutions that survived their rigorous evaluation process.

But after the Berlin wall fell, military budgets followed suit. Then 9-11 reminded the world that peace can be fleeting, and vulnerability exists. Fast forward to a decade or more of electronic manufacturing development, and the machine vision industry found itself again armed with the right tech, at the right cost to entice military and security customers. In short, today, machine vision companies have the electronics manufacturing toolsets to deliver protective systems for both high-end military needs and less robust versions of the same technology for the cost-conscious security industry.

Safety at a Price
“I asked our people what do the security markets in China want first?” asked Michael Deluca, go-to-market manager at On Semiconductor (Phoenix, Arizona), a leading manufacturer of image sensors. “Do they want resolution, or what? The first question is how much is it? 3 dollars? Okay, so what does it do? It wasn’t power or performance, it was price, and then after that, what can it do.” Deluca said this illustrates the larger trends impacting imaging technology and the companies that sell it – namely, do you pursue a business plan of product commoditization or optimization and customization?

And it’s not just security (and industrial) markets that lead with the cost question. In the past, video interface specialists, Pleora Technologies (Kanata, Ontario Canada), licensed their intellectual property to the military industry rather than sell tangible products. “That way, the military customer could take on the manufacturing responsibility, build the product in the U.S., and find ways to get around the wider temperature ranges, form factors and other military criteria,” said John Butler, senior manager of sales operations at Pleora Technologies. “Today, customers don’t always have a budget to support investing an entire R&D cycle in schematic, layout and prototype efforts in order to validate an interface in the early stages of a project. Many military customers want an off-the-shelf product they can use today.”

For example, Pleora developed the iPORT CL-GigE external frame grabber with extended operational temperature ranges from -40° to 60°C for military and rugged installations to complement its portfolio of products with performance geared towards more typical operating conditions found on a factory floor.

Pleora’s new Transcoder Gateway makes a similar cost-effective pitch to security markets by allowing remote users to access image feeds from multiple existing GigE Vision or USB3 Vision cameras on a display panel, tablet, or smartphone over a wired or wireless Ethernet connection.

“Many military and security imaging applications, such as perimeter monitoring, have both automated and live viewing requirements. The Transcoder Gateway allows one imaging system to satisfy both demands, by retaining the high-bandwidth vision standard video for processing while converting the feed into the H.264 compression format for economical transmission to a playback device,” added Butler.

Expect More Surveillance
Developed countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia have led the way when it comes to leveraging video for public safety and security applications. According to security experts, the U.S. is following suit when it comes to protecting critical infrastructure.

“Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant was a trigger around the world for better monitoring and security systems,” explained Hervé Copin, CEO of Xenics USA, Inc., one of three primary suppliers of InGaAs near- and short-wave infrared (NIR/SWIR) cameras. “And not just for human surveillance, but for asset surveillance, too.”

By pairing visible cameras with infrared cameras, people can monitor both humans and material-based aspects of machinery. While SWIR won’t detect hot spots caused by overhead motors, it can detect fluids and material qualities while allowing operators to see through smoke, vapor, and other airborne particulates.

While SWIR sensors aren’t yet cost 3 dollars each, Xenics Copin says that growing demand from homeland security applications were enough to entice a new Korean supplier into the market and will inevitably drive down unit costs, opening up even more applications. “Think about electrical substations and the condition of the U.S. power grid, for example,” said Copin. “In recent years, a single substation failure has caused upstream outages that have put thousands in the dark. We don’t know how many substations are in the U.S., but Mexico, for example has 20,000 or more. And we expect the U.S. easily has ten times that.”

Ironically, much of this U.S. demand for infrared cameras may actually be supplied by non-U.S. companies. In the past, U.S. manufacturers of infrared imaging systems have faced stiff export controls under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). Recently, the U.S. moved some of those oversight responsibilities to the Department of Commerce to encourage U.S. exports in this area. But according to Copin, the changes have added administrative overhead to U.S. companies that can effectively keep smaller operations out of the market. “What was supposed to make things easier, has actually made it much more difficult,” said Copin. “We’re seeing a lot of U.S. companies source components and do final assemblies in overseas markets to avoid these regulations.”

As more of the U.S. electrical grid is upgraded to a secure network, surveillance systems will make it easier to protect and troubleshoot outages, while protecting critical infrastructure. Higher quality industrial cameras and equipment will also enable the use of image processing algorithms to automatically monitor raw video, extracting actionable intelligence from raw video feeds much like distributed quality control networks inspect large flat panels with micrometer precision.

Adimec (Eindhoven, The Netherlands) has similar plans to add pre-processing capabilities to their new CMOS cameras for military applications. “As we move from CCD to CMOS sensors with higher resolutions, we’ll help our customers to scale their ability to handle the data by managing the data at the camera, allowing customers to upgrade their image acquisition capabilities while operating on the existing computing platforms for gimbal-based and other military platforms,” explained Jochem Herrmann, chief scientist at Adimec. This approach will help military applications, with life cycles of 10, 15, 20 years and more, to benefit from technology advances without requiring a completely new system – a major challenge for military designers.

Armed with more flexible electronic design tools and flexible fabs, machine vision is helping to solve the twin challenges of military and security applications – offering the most advanced imaging technology in a variety of flavors and price points.