Fifty Years of Owning the Night: The History of Infrared Imaging

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The impact that Forward-Looking Infrared, or FLIR, has made on modern warfare is the difference between night and day … literally.

FLIR grants forces the ability to maneuver under the cloak of darkness, giving soldiers the power to “own the night.“ They can peer through dust storms, see enemies in hiding and get high-resolution pictures without giving away their positions.

The story of FLIR begins in 1963 when Texas Instruments’ Defense Systems and Electronics Division, later acquired by Raytheon, invested $30,000 in what engineer Kirby Taylor called a “little experiment” in infrared imaging.

The U.S. Air Force had been mounting scanners in the bays of large cargo aircraft, shooting images of the ground in the infrared spectrum with film. It was a very slow process because the film had to be returned to base, then developed and then analyzed. One-hour pickup at the photo center, it's not.

A U.S. Air Force Douglas AC-47D Spooky gunship used an early FLIR system during the Vietnam War.
A U.S. Air Force Douglas AC-47D Spooky gunship used an early FLIR system during the Vietnam War.

Taylor’s idea was to replace the film with photoconductive detectors. Their output could be “rasterized“ and put onto a TV-style display.

With FLIR, You Can't Hide

The technology came just in time for the military, which was having trouble tracking troop movements in Vietnam.

"The problem was the enemy was moving from North to South at night, undetected," Taylor said. "They weren’t picking up any activity — zero."

After conducting tests at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, and Clark Air Base in The Philippines, the Air Force began flying missions over North Vietnam in the fall of 1965 using FLIR to identify ammunition dumps, bases and troop movements.

“By the time the team and I left, we were engaging 400 trucks a month, driving in convoys, on the Ho Chi Minh trail, “ Taylor said.

However, the FLIR systems also had drawbacks. Massive amounts of power were needed to cool the equipment to about 26 degrees Kelvin. In later models the temperature rose to a balmy 76 degrees Kelvin, about the temperature at which liquid nitrogen boils. They were also mammoth, with only large aircraft like C-130 gunships able to haul them.

The Elephants in the Room

Speaking of mammoths, Taylor tells a story about the early demonstrations of the FLIR system to the Air Force. During one demonstration, the competitor imaged rabbits hopping around.

“Well, as you know…everything is bigger in Texas,” Taylor said. “So we brought in some circus elephants to be the subject in our demo… Nobody expected that!”

Early FLIR systems were all unique depending on their mission and their manufacturer. But in the early 1970s engineers developed common optics and electronics modules that could be used in all systems. This drove down costs dramatically.

The company developed FLIR systems for many applications including tank gunsights, missile launchers, and night-vision driving and flying. The F-117 stealth fighter’s fire-control system was built around Raytheon’s common-module FLIR.

In the early 1990s, Raytheon engineers began work on second-generation FLIR, giving the military the ability to better distinguish enemy tanks, aircraft, ships and troops.

That's So Uncooled

New uncooled detector technology allowed for new applications, including rifle sights and drivers’ viewers.

This technology allows these FLIRs to weigh ounces and run on a few AAA batteries. Soldiers can now carry Thermal Weapon Sights right on their rifles.

Raytheon also began integrating the smaller, lighter and more affordable FLIR modules into sensor turrets for aircraft. These Multi-Spectral Targeting Systems now fly on everything from the Reaper unmanned aircraft to the MH-60 helicopter.

Advanced FLIR is also in space aboard the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite. The satellite carries Raytheon’s Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite, providing highly detailed imagery that is already improving weather forecasting and disaster planning.

“With VIIRS, we are establishing a new baseline for nighttime and low-light imagery,” said Warren Flynn, Raytheon’s director of Environmental Sensing.

Raytheon is now introducing 3rd Gen FLIR technology to the battlefield. The Army recently tested 3rd Gen FLIR in its TOW missile launcher.

The technology promises to bring a new kind of situational awareness to every patrol, said Jeff Miller, vice president of Raytheon’s Combat and Sensing Systems.

“With 3rd Gen FLIR, our forces will be able to tell – in any weather condition or at night – if the person lurking behind the truck down the road is holding a deadly RPG or just a shovel,” Miller said.

Published On: 12/01/2013
Last Updated: 06/01/2018