A FLIR for Innovation

By January 9, 2018August 13th, 2018Army ALT Magazine, Science and Technology
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Moving objects appeared as glowing blobs in early infrared vision equipment. Clarifying the picture so Soldiers could distinguish people from background objects, combatants from noncombatants, required imagination, initiative and information.

by Dr. Richard Nabors and Mr. Nathan Burkholder

Innovation isn’t just a matter of creating something new. Rather, it’s the process of translating an idea into goods or services that will create value for an end user. As such, innovation requires three key ingredients: the need (or, in defense acquisition terms, the requirement of the customer); people competent in the required technology; and supporting resources. The Catch-22 is that all three of these ingredients need to be present for innovation success, but each one often depends on the existence of the others.

This can be challenging for the government, where it tends to be difficult to find funding for innovative ideas when there are no perceived requirements to be fulfilled. With transformational ideas, the need is often not fully realized until after the innovation; people did not realize they “needed” a smartphone until after the iPhone was produced. For this reason, revolutionary innovations within DOD struggle to fully mature without concerted and focused efforts from all of the defense communities: research, requirements, transition and acquisition.

Despite these challenges, the Army has demonstrated its ability to generate successful innovative programs throughout the years. A prime example is the recently completed Third Generation Forward Looking Infrared (3rd Gen FLIR) program. It exemplifies the Army process of transitioning a new and innovative program from the research community into the military platforms in use today.


The 3rd Gen FLIR products seen here are examples of a new and innovative program from the research community making the sometimes treacherous transition into field use. (U.S. Army photo by CERDEC)


The first implementation of FLIR gave the Army a limited ability to detect objects on the battlefield at night. Users were able to see “glowing, moving blobs” that stood out in contrast to the background. Although detectable, these blobs were often challenging to identify. In cluttered, complex environments, distinguishing nonmoving objects from the background could be difficult.

These first-generation systems were large and slow and provided low-resolution images not suitable for long-range target identification. In many ways, they were like the boom box music players that existed before the iPhone: They played music, but they could support only one function, had a limited capacity, took up a lot of space, required significant power and were not very portable. Third Gen FLIR was developed based on the idea that greater speed, precision and range in the targeting process could unlock the full potential of infrared imaging and would provide a transformative capability, like the iPhone, that would have cascading positive effects across the entire military well into the future.

Because speed, precision and accuracy are critical components for platform lethality, 3rd Gen FLIR provides a significant operational performance advantage over the previous FLIR sensor systems. With 3rd Gen FLIR, the Army moved away from a single band (which uses only a portion of the light spectrum) to a multiband infrared imaging system, which is able to select the optimal portion of the light spectrum for identifying a variety of different targets.

The Army integrated this new sensor with computer software (signal processing) to automatically enhance these FLIR images and video in real time with no complicated setup or training required (similar to how the iPhone automatically adjusts for various lighting conditions to create the best image possible). Third Gen combines all of these features along with multiple fields of view (similar to having multiple camera lenses that change on demand) to provide significantly improved detection ranges and a reduction in false alarms when compared with previous FLIR sensor systems.]

Using its wider fields of view and increased resolution, 3rd Gen FLIR allows the military to conduct rapid area search. This capability has proven to be invaluable in distinguishing combatants from noncombatants and reducing collateral damage. Having all of these elements within a single sensor allows warfighters to optimize their equipment for the prevailing battlefield conditions, greatly enhancing mission effectiveness and survivability. Current and future air- and ground-based systems alike benefit from the new FLIR sensors, by enabling the military to purchase a single sensor that can be used across multiple platforms and for a variety of missions. This provides significant cost savings for the military by reducing the number of different systems it has to buy, maintain and sustain.

Third Gen FLIR was effective in implementing the three key ingredients mentioned above (requirements, expertise and available resources). A closer look explains how the 3rd Gen FLIR program helped solve some of the challenges it faced in those areas to arrive at its accomplishment today as an Army innovation success.


U.S. Army Spc. Roland Merrill of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division watches over tanks in his unit with a 3rd Gen FLIR-equipped Long Range Advanced Scout Surveillance System during Decisive Action Rotation 18-01 in October 2017 at the National Training Center (NTC), Fort Irwin, California. With its wider fields of view and increased resolution, 3rd Gen FLIR allows Soldiers to rapidly search an area and identify objects with a much higher degree of confidence than older infrared imaging equipment. (U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Horace Murray, NTC Operations Group)


The 3rd Gen FLIR program struggled early in its development, as do most new and innovative efforts, to identify requirement documentation crucial to help support the planning and resourcing necessary to sustain a successful program. Without the user community understanding what could be possible, the requirements at the time were all based around the perceived limitations of what technology could provide. To reiterate the old adage attributed to Henry Ford, “If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” To overcome this, the research community developed a comprehensive strategy for educational outreach on the full potential of what 3rd Gen FLIR could achieve and executed it to help inform the Army’s requirement developers, military officers and industry. This campaign highlighted not only the need, but also what was possible, and served as the catalyst to bring the entire community together to make 3rd Gen FLIR a reality for the warfighter.


The expertise required to achieve 3rd Gen FLIR success was spread across a variety of organizations and industries. More than 16 significant research and development projects from multiple organizations were integrated to create this program:

  • Thirteen percent were from Small Business Innovation Research program efforts, which brought in companies outside of the traditional large defense contractors.
  • More than 25 percent of the activities involved applied research funding, which served to partner in-house expertise with external communities through cooperative research and development agreements.
  • Thirty-one percent of the efforts were Manufacturing Technology (ManTech) initiatives, working with focal plane array and substrate manufacturers to develop the technology necessary to drive down future costs and ensure the stability of long-term manufacturing capabilities. (Focal planes are like the digital film in modern digital cameras that record the images.)
  • Thirty-one percent of activities were executed through advanced technology development funding with traditional large defense contractors who work on sensor development and system integration.

All of these ingredients were critical to create the 3rd Gen FLIR system. But ingredients by themselves do not make a masterpiece; a chef is needed to bring them together in the right sequence with the proper proportions to achieve the desired result. For 3rd Gen FLIR, the talented workforce across the Army research community played this vital role, strategically aligning these individual activities and working them together to provide a comprehensive, interconnected final solution.


An MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned aerial system, equipped with 3rd Gen FLIR sensors and belonging to Company D, 10th Aviation Regiment, prepares to conduct a mission from Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, in September 2017. Third Gen FLIR sensors are used in current and future air- and ground-based systems, allowing the military to purchase a single sensor that can be used across multiple platforms and for a variety of missions, at significant cost savings. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Isolda Reyes, 29th Combat Aviation Brigade)


Neither requirements nor expertise would count for much were there not appropriate, sustained investments over time to support the development of 3rd Gen FLIR. The program took many years of consistent investments into innovations and breakthroughs in areas such as substrate growth (the digital film that converts light into signals), dual-band focal plane arrays (digital film that can capture two different types of light at the same time), variable apertures (adjustable focus), modeling and simulation (automated computer optimization of imagery), and sensor miniaturization (portability).

Obtaining the support of industry and leveraging their internal research and development investments required the Army to build trust in the overall program through focused, appropriately timed acquisition activities conducted simultaneously across multiple fronts. By creating partnerships with others, such as the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate (NVESD) and ManTech, 3rd Gen FLIR was able to integrate multiple funding sources to ensure a secure resource foundation.


A Soldier views the 3rd Gen FLIR’s capabilities. Third Gen FLIR enables greater speed, precision and range in the targeting process and promises to unlock the full potential of infrared imaging. (U.S. Army photo by CERDEC)


As the Army reorganizes to modernize its capabilities, it can look to the success of the 3rd Gen FLIR program as a prototype. The program has demonstrated several key elements critical to the successful implementation of an innovative program, which illustrates the transition from good ideas into actual capabilities in the hands of warfighters.

It exemplifies how the military can benefit when Army communities work together to combine requirements with resources, technology innovation and cooperation. With all of the participants collaborating, from the requirements community to the acquisition and development communities, the Army overcomes barriers and is able to create an environment where innovation thrives, equipping its warriors with the best technology in the world.

For more information or to contact the authors, go to www.cerdec.army.mil.

RICHARD NABORS is associate director for strategic planning and deputy director of the Operations Division at NVESD at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He holds a doctor of management in organizational leadership from the University of Phoenix, an M.S. in management from the Florida Institute of Technology, and a B.A. in history from Old Dominion University. He is Level I certified in program management.

NATHAN BURKHOLDER is a strategic analyst for -KITEWIRE Inc. who supports NVESD. He holds a B.S. in engineering from Messiah College.

This article is published in the January – March 2018 issue of Army AL&T magazine.

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