Night-vision devices like goggles or telescopes are a key part of modern military and security operations. Whether you’ve seen them in movies or television shows or read about them in novels, the concept has been around for a number of years. What is less known, perhaps, is that while the Indian Army relies heavily on these devices for a range of operations, they have never been produced indigenously.
A team of scientists from IIT-Bombay have now made a key breakthrough in developing India’s first infrared sensors for thermal imaging.
The research started in 2010, with funding from the Defence Research and Development Organisation and the Indian Space Research Organisation. The details of the work were published in the prominent science journal Current Science in April 2017.
Made in India
The technology, the scientists say, can be used for a range of applications such as night vision, surveillance and — going beyond military and security operations — even in the detection of cancers.
“The successful development and demonstration of indigenous infrared sensors to image human objects is a major milestone for the Indian scientific community,” says Subhananda Chakrabarti, of IIT-B’s department of electrical engineering, where the infrastructure for creating the sensor was developed.
In an air conditioned room in the department, Prof. Chakrabarti and his team are able to use the sensor to capture startlingly clear images of human subjects, even when the room is in complete darkness. The sensor captures the thermal signature emanated by a subject and is accurate to the point of picking up minor temperature differences: put your hand on a cold surface for two seconds for instance, and that sport on your palm registers darker on the camera.
“The focal plane arrays, which is at the heart of all thermal imagers, involves a number of complex fabrication steps,” Prof. Chakrabarti says.
“IIT Bombay’s research group have successfully optimised each of these steps in-house and thereby the flipchip bonded sensor arrays can be entirely fabricated in this country. This will make the indigenous thermal imaging or night-vision technology affordable and cheaper and will serve as a perfect example of Made In India.”
Crucial for defence
This project could, perhaps, be the first significant development in the push for indigenous military equipment production. According to Prof. Chakrabarti, the DRDO spends about ₹1,000 crore per year on importing night-vision devices to equip Indian soldiers and has been searching for an indigenous solution for over two decades.
A July 2016 article in Force , a national security and aerospace news magazine, says the Army had restarted procurement for night-vision devices and had asked both public and private sector companies involved in the manufacture of night-vision devices to come forward with proposals under the Make In India programme. The Army’s proposal, it said, will take into account the Indian content in the final product and technological tie-ups with foreign companies. The article noted that after the Uri attack in 2016, night vision devices were seen as a crucial requirement in the wake of heightened infiltration attempts across the Line of Control.
Prof. Chakrabarti says that that the next step the team will follow is to integrate the device with coolers, and to miniaturise it so that it can be used in a variety of applications. As a first step, he suggests that the technology can be used on telescopes mounted on rifles or tanks, and as the process of miniaturisation progresses, it can possibly be used to manufacture night-vision goggles. “Besides use by the Army, the sensor can also be used by ISRO for surveillance. And we also hope that there are future applications in the medical field, particularly in the detection of cancer.”
This achievement, Prof. Chakrabarti says, should provide impetus to the indigenous development of technologies for night vision and surveillance, because they are relevant to the requirements of both the DRDO and ISRO. But, he says, to take these developments further and make them useful for India’s defence, space, and other sectors, it is essential that a more focused centre for infrared technologies be set up in the country. Currently, experiments with these technologies are in isolated centres and the development of successful applications is rare.