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Night vision devices on modern drones

Aug 17, 2023 | 05:36 pm 170 0
Night vision devices on modern drones

War is a powerful engine of progress, sad to say, but we cannot deny the obvious. After all, almost everything that surrounds us today has appeared or undergone rapid development and improvement during military events. 

Even such an ordinary thing as a map. Once upon a time, rough drawings of the terrain were used, but later the need for more accurate coordinates grew. Especially when it comes to military tactics and strategy. The need to navigate the positions of your troops, their movements, and the enemy's works is a significant factor for victory. And with every century, some details were added to improve the map's functioning, and its variability increased. And no military can refuse such an ordinary and mundane thing. Today, the whole world is in a small phone, which will also tell us where the traffic jams are. But it all started with something as primitive as possible. 

And in this article, we will look at a relatively young device that serves as additional confirmation of the above theory. Since the beginning of the 21st century, flying unmanned aerial vehicles and ground drones have rapidly penetrated various spheres of life and even human life. But the history of drones began as a purely military practice.

What is a drone?  

The history of drones dates back to 1782 when brothers Etienne and Joseph Mongolfier lifted a balloon filled with smoke into the air. The diameter of the supporting shell was 3.5 meters, and the weight of the entire device was 154 kilograms. Balloons, later called airships, played an essential role in aviation history, but drones became a real find in military affairs. 

The beginning of the military history of drones can be considered the Italian Revolution of 1848-1849, when Austrian troops bombarded the rebellious Venetian Republic with balloons.

The terrain in that area was not conducive to effective artillery, so the army commanders launched two balloons filled with bombs over the rebellious city. 

The balloons were equipped with automatic ammunition drop mechanisms. Although the bombing did not bring much success, the Venetians panicked, and the day of July 12, 1849, went down in the history of combat drones.

The late nineteenth century was the era of electricity and the invention of radio frequencies. In 1898, the famous physicist, engineer, and inventor Nikola Tesla demonstrated the first radio-controlled boat on a lake in Madison Square Garden (New York, USA). But even though these experiments were quite successful, the second combat radio-controlled drone was not a ship but a military aircraft. American Charles Kettering creates a "flying bomb." According to the inventor's plan, the airplane filled with explosives was controlled not by a pilot but by a clockwork mechanism. It would drop its wings and fall on the enemy's head like a stone at the programmed moment. This project quickly received government funding. However, several unfortunate incidents during the testing of these devices only contributed to the fact that production was stopped before the outbreak of World War I. 

The prospect of developing radio-controlled drones resumed in 1933. British engineers designed the first UAV, which was remotely controlled by radio and used repeatedly.

DH.82B Queen Bee models successfully served the army from 1934 to 1943 as target aircraft. They were used to train future ace pilots and anti-aircraft gunners.

 Since the beginning of World War II, drones for the army have been mass-produced. The three main warring parties (the USSR, the US, and Germany) repeatedly returned to unmanned aircraft services, feeling its clear advantage over manned vehicles. Since World War II, the United States has been the undisputed leader in developing and using UAVs. For example, drones and manned cars have been in service with the US Army for many years.

Today, a drone is defined as any mobile unmanned vehicle pre-programmed to perform a specific task in the air, on land, or underwater. While "drone" refers to a broad category of vehicles, UAV refers specifically to a flying car. An unmanned aerial vehicle is controlled remotely or is programmed and fully autonomous. 

Any war ends sooner or later, and what used to be used for spying or killing is now used by people in peacetime, which is beneficial. Drone delivery of goods, collection of various information over large areas, aerial and photography are already being practiced. The capabilities of drones are still being studied, and the devices are being improved.

Night Vision Devices 

Humans are limited in their ability to see in the dark. Animals have this privilege, so, as always, humanity had to devise a way to make navigating the terrain in the dark easier. This goal prompted inventors to create a device we know today as a night vision device. 

The first samples appeared in late 1929 and were used by the Germans during World War II but did not gain much popularity. Meanwhile, a commercial night vision device appeared in the United States, developed by the famous inventor Vladimir Kuzmich Zworykinmi in the 1930s. Since then, this device has begun to improve rapidly, it is classified by generation and appearance, and some modern cameras separately work in low light conditions using this technology.

It is easy to see that drones and UAS are almost the same age and good friends, as they have been used to complement each other in combat missions since the beginning of their existence. This cooperation continues today.

Night vision devices on modern drones 

Emergency workers often use drones. For example, when someone gets lost in the woods. And you need to inspect the area quickly and urgently to understand in which direction you need to move to perform a rescue operation. This is especially useful when there is mountainous terrain around. Unfortunately, such situations often occur at night. That's why a drone equipped with a night vision camera is handy. Thanks to the terrain analysis, the task force is provided with important information that helps to solve the tasks quickly. 

It's also important to emphasize that night vision is generally divided into two technologies that differ in their mode of operation and functionality. We are talking about starlight (low-light) cameras and thermal cameras. Their principle of operation generally depends on the processing of information provided by infrared light. This sometimes needs to be clarified for users who mistakenly think these two technologies are similar. However, this is a false statement. So let's take a closer look at both options.

Starlight or a low-light camera

These devices do not work in complete darkness. They use and amplify the available light. Potential sources of light are moonlight, stars, or nearby streetlights. A device with this technology consists of the following main parts: a lens, a radiation receiver, an amplifier, an image display device, and a power supply. In many modern night vision devices, the role of the radiation receiver, amplifier, and the image display device is performed by an electron-optical converter. A small amount of light is converted into electrons, which grow exponentially due to chemical and physical reactions in the machine and are displayed on the device's screen as a green image. 

Given that a camera of this type requires a weak but minimal light source, it is easy to conclude that it will be of little use in complete darkness.

Infrared (IR) and thermal camera

Thermal imagers have sophisticated photodetectors that capture infrared waves corresponding to a specific temperature range.  An image processor uses the data to create a thermogram or color map. This can be a person, animal, fire, engine, or other heat source. Depending on the generation of the thermal imaging camera, the data you get with it will be more accurate. There are models that not only show a heat map but also indicate the temperature of the observed objects. So, this camera functionality will provide environmental monitoring even in complete darkness. 

We mentioned that rescuers often need such technologies. However, the use of these devices is certainly more comprehensive than this. You can buy such a device to monitor the environment, especially in hard-to-reach places. To observe animals and record their nightlife. 

Your needs will determine what type of camera you should pay attention to. And in the process of choosing, you will need to pay attention to many factors.

First, this is what we have already mentioned earlier. The principle of their operation and what kind of image you will get. Remember that a thermal imager can see without any additional light source. And in general, this makes it more suitable for rescue operations. In particular, because of the range of its operation, when you need to observe a large scale of the territory. At the same time, a CCD camera needs a minimum distance to the object of observation to capture it. 

At the same time, it is worth considering their operating conditions, i.e., their vulnerability to environmental factors. We are talking about strong winds, rain, fog, and other weather conditions that can impede the successful and productive operation of the drone.

The generation of night vision will influence your choice. Of course, the older the age, the better it is because it guarantees that newer and better materials and new technologies are used in producing this product.

We have spent much time on cameras, but they are still surveillance tools that will only perform their tasks with the aircraft. Here we need to be guided by specific criteria. Its weight, engine power. The body's material is responsible for its resistance to weather conditions and its sensitivity to mechanical damage. Autonomy, i.e., how many hours the device can operate in one flight. Another important criterion is how far it can fly, thanks to radio control. Also, its size and compactness. The smaller the device, the less accessible places it can fly to, or the less dense the trees will be a problem.

If you already have a drone with a camera that has completed its tasks but decide it's not enough and wants to test it in night conditions, you should now buy a new drone with a night vision camera. But this is not necessary. You need to install a light or thermal camera on the frame or gimbal of the drone. If you look at this issue from the perspective of saving money and practicality, use a lighting system. When the drone evenly illuminates a particular area, the camera can operate normally and show a color image, just like during the day. Thermal imaging cameras, in turn, will cost more because of their advantages and features.

Again. All these points depend solely on your needs and expectations. When using a drone, you should always remember that it is essential to follow several clear rules that become more demanding at night. 

Before using the drone, check the aircraft's serviceability, camera integrity, and GPS signal strength, and return to home position settings. 

At night, it is difficult to maintain a line of sight, so look 5-10 degrees away from the center of the drone to compensate for nighttime blind spots. You can use a visual observer to help you; the aircraft should be well-lit. 

Only fly the drone on the terrain you know well. First, familiarize yourself with the landscape using Google Maps. If you still need to improve at passing this device, practice during the day in an area without obstacles, such as trees or buildings. Remember the capabilities and features of your aircraft, so always check the weather forecast. 

Avoid locations where the drone is at risk of colliding with airplanes. At best, only your device will be damaged. At worst, you could cause a severe accident.

To land a drone, use a special landing pad with additional lighting. It is also important to note that according to the rules of the Federal Aviation Administration, there are specific points or cities or countries where the use of such an aircraft at night is prohibited, for example, in France. Therefore, to avoid unpleasant situations where the law will judge you, always check the rules of the region in which you are located.

Despite their "military past," drones and UAS have quickly become part of civilian life. They now protect law and order, assist inspection teams, utility workers, and rescuers, and are used by wildlife conservation teams. They provide the necessary information to help save lives or explore the environment. And if the drone has a camera with night vision technology, it only expands its capabilities and range of use.


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