The product is part of a years-long push to modernize tools the military uses, officials say. The helmet-mounted device, loaded with thermal imaging and augmented reality capabilities, introduces technology found in smartphones and gaming systems to traditional night-vision hardware.
“It brings in gaming capabilities that kids are used to from video games. Now, they’re getting to use those when they join our military forces,” said Erik Fox, vice president and general manager at Elbit Systems of America – Night Vision, the company behind the devices. The firm is owned by Israel’s Elbit Systems, an international defense electronics company.
The goggles represent a shift away from the green-washed imagery typical of traditional night equipment, which can cause eyestrain and fatigue. The new image is easier on the eyes and provides more clarity, making targets easier to spot through clouds of smoke and in low-visibility weather.
“Night-vision goggles with the green tint seems cool and all, until you’ve actually been wearing those all night,” said Blake Gaughan, an infantry officer at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. “If you’re running continuous night operations, it just gives you a headache.” He has used the new goggles and is helping train others on how they work.
The new night-vision capabilities take center stage in several videos and screenshots posted online by the military combat squad the Lancer Brigade. In one video, soldiers are lit up under the night sky as they load ammunition into a machine gun for weapons training. In one series of photos, the soldiers are clearly outlined against a concrete wall at night.
Elbit began shipping the goggles to the Army last year in a deal worth up to $422 million for enhanced night-vision systems. The company, based in Roanoke, specializes in electronics for homeland security and says its next-generation binoculars infuse the latest in connectivity with old vacuum tube technology found in black-and-white TVs.
The military’s new gadget works by amplifying existing light, either from the moon, stars or sources on the ground. The device senses tiny amounts of photons reflected off seemingly dark objects. Then, the photons pass over an internal surface engineered to convert light into electrons. The electrons are amplified by striking a quarter-sized glass plate that has millions of tiny holes in it. Then, they pass a screen coated with phosphor, a fluorescent substance, to create an image.
Traditionally, a green phosphor is used, which is why green-hued night-vision imagery is well-known. But Elbit’s latest device uses white phosphor, producing black-and-white images, which officers say creates more contrast and greater clarity at night.
“Generally, when you think of night goggles, you think of ambient green light, which is helpful, but this is an improvement on that and allows for better accuracy,” said Daniel Mathews, public affairs officer for the Lancer Brigade.
The Army’s latest goggles include an outline mode, which creates glowing white outlines. There’s an augmented reality overlay that can display navigation instructions and maps. The goggles can also connect wirelessly to others in the platoon, so if a soldier spots something, they can mark that object in cyberspace and have it show up on other people’s binoculars.
The upgrade was built with an adjustable intensity tool that works in the daylight, where previous generations couldn’t.
“With a lot of the older models, if a flash bang went off, or if there was a bright light, you would be almost blind because the binoculars were taking in all that light,” Mathews said. “These have the ability to adjust, so you can use these during the day at dusk.”
And it’s not just the Army suiting up with next-level night-vision systems. The Marines also recruited Elbit to replace its night-vision tech with a pair of binoculars for greater depth perception. The project began in 2019 to replace the military branches’ old monocular system with updated binoculars.
The monocular goggles meant troops could see only nighttime imagery through one eye. And in April, the Marines announced that Elbit would upgrade its night-vision goggles through 2022. Part of that deal includes a helmet clip-on that detects infrared energy and enables troops to see thermal images.
The Army’s version has the heat-imaging system built in, and it outlines objects giving off heat in orange, making enemies in the field easier to spot, soldiers say.
The Army is deploying the goggles on a rolling basis.
“It’s a new piece of tech, and we want to make sure everyone has time to get properly trained” on how each of the modes work, said Gaughan, an infantry officer at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. “It’s an ongoing process to get people properly trained rather than just handing them all out.”
Outdoor enthusiasts, hunters and survivalists can buy goggles powered by Elbit’s tech, too. The company supplies its technology to California-based US Night Vision, a corporation offering night vision goggles online for $11,800. Elbit’s tech is also used in goggles sold by Pennsylvania-based Night Vision Devices, which lists goggles online for about $7,500 plus additional costs for batteries and accessories.