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Researchers at the science campus (Akademgorodok) in Novosibirsk have designed a thermal imaging sight. A joint development by the Design and Engineering Institute of Applied Microelectronics. Siberian Branch. Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Limited Liability Company “Progresstekh” was presented by Alexander Golitsyn at the startup campus of “Interrra” Forum, which recently took place in Novosibirsk.
The device is intended for observation and sight shooting under restricted visibility conditions, such as poor illumination and complete darkness, smokescreen, fog. Outwardly, the device looks like an ordinary video camera but in contrast to it the device detects invisible distant infrared radiation (also called thermal radiation) from observed objects. The device enables to distinguish what comes into view – a crowd of people, transport or other sources of heat at the distance up to a kilometer and a half. Cold heavy shower is the only obstacle to the thermal imager operation, as water is non-transparent for thermal radiation. The main distinction of the thermal imaging sight from other similar devices is that the sight is intended for sight shooting (on top of locality observation) – it is installed upon small arms, including large-calibre arms, therefore, the sight should be resistant to heavy shocks.
The device is based on the amorphous silicon uncooled photodetector array sensitive to thermal radiation. This particular device uses a matrix of French production, its resolution being 640×480 elements. The device case, lens and electronics package are all in-house development.
Image formation and processing electronics package
We shall dwell on the latter. The electronics package receives images from a photodetector array in the form of electronic signal and improves it. Image processing is in real time throughout the entire frame with the help of various algorithms. Besides, image inversion and scaling can be done, the image can be shown on the sight display and saved to a PC via the USB. The same package is equipped with a ballistic calculator inbuilt into the sight, which is necessary for automated corrections to the sight mark depending on the target range, weather conditions, the applied weapon type and cartridge type. Besides, the device is low power – it can work continuously for four hours on four AA batteries.
The researchers hope that the sight will be in demand by the Russian Army, which, according to their data, annually needs at least 100 thermal imaging sights. To date, they have already assembled 10 devices and sent them for testing. Besides, civil market will demand about 10 specimen a year. Alexander Golitsyn referred to the agreement with a commercial company for device supplies to armorer shops for hunters. Supplies will start after all necessary tests are passed and the sight is introduced in service.
Meanwhile, the thermal imaging sight market abroad is constantly growing. Thus, within the last five years, 80 thousand various-purpose thermal imaging devices (sights making part of them) have already been purchased for the US army.
“There are no thermal imaging sights for small arms in the Russian army yet – foreign companies do not sell dual-purpose goods and technologies to Russia. Those foreign sights that are available for purchase – produced in China, France, Israel, – are suitable only for civil application as hunting sights – they do not fit for heavy calibres. A sight like this can be installed on a gun, but not on a heavy-caliber full-bore rifle or a machinegun”, says the developer.
In Russia, competitors to the Novosibirsk sight are developments by the Central Research Institute “Cyclone” – “Shakhin” sight and a thermal imaging sight produced by the Rostov Optomechanical Plant. According to the developers from Novosibirsk, “Shakhin” sight’s resolution is worse (160×120 и 320×240 elements), and its engineering design is not intended for heavy calibers weapons. As for the Rostov sight, the lens construction does not allow to use the device in different weather conditions – should the weather change, it is necessary to refocus the lens, and the aiming axis pin shifts due to peculiarities of the device construction. Both competitors have a too narrow field of view, owing to which it is easy to shoot at targets of known location but it is practically impossible to find the enemy within a short period in the area with previously unknown coordinates.
The Novosibirsk sight is not inexpensive – a buyer will have to pay RUB 1.5 million per specimen. However, it is probably worth it. In any case, the device demonstrated by Alexander Golitsyn made 12 thousand rounds per submachine gun, 5 thousand – per heavy machinegun “Utyos” and 7 rounds per rifle-attached grenade launcher. And it looks like new. There exist less expensive thermal imaging devices used by rescuers and builders, their price starting from RUB 200 thousand. However, these are observation devices, not sights. “If an ordinary thermal imager is installed on a barrel, it will break down”, the young researcher says.
The developers already have a performance specification for the sight agreed at the RF Ministry of Defense and Internal Troops, test records are also available.
Thermal array developed at the Institute of Semiconductor Physics, Siberian Branch, Academy of Sciences
Even Soviet researchers were developing thermal imaging units, but processing complexities existed at that time – difficulty in manufacturing, necessity to chill the photodetector by liquid nitrogen. At that time, thermal imaging unit installation on small arms was not the case. Later, an uncooled array was invented in the USA, and production of light-weight portable thermal imaging units started. The USSR did not exist at that time any more. There were no native uncooled thermal arrays in Russia for a long time due to shortage of funding. The Institute of Semiconductor Physics at the science campus (Akademgorodok) has recently developed a microbolometer uncooled array – the analogue to a foreign array. Due to piece production, the domestic array is still significantly inferior to foreign analogues in characteristics, but, nevertheless, this is one more step towards a completely native thermal imaging unit.
The science campus (Akademgorodok) embarked on thermal imaging sight development in 2008.
Photographs provided by the Limited Liability Company “Progresstekh”