4 minute read

Night Vision Enhancement Devices

Image intensification

Night vision enhancement scopes or devices enable machines or people to form images when illumination in the visible band of the electromagnetic spectrum is inadequate. Although it is not possible to form images in absolute darkness, that is, in the absence of any electromagnetic radiation whatsoever, it is possible to form images from radiation wavelengths to which the human eye is insensitive, or to amplify visible-light levels so low that they appear dark to the human eye.

There are two basic approaches to imaging scenes in which visible light is inadequate for human vision:

  1. Low-level visible light that is naturally present may be amplified and presented directly to the viewer's eye. (Light in the near-infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum [ 0.77–1.0 microns], either naturally present or supplied as illumination, may also be amplified and its pattern translated into a visible-light pattern for the viewer's benefit.) This technique is termed image intensification.
  2. Light in the infrared part of the spectrum (>0.8 microns) is emitted by all warm objects and may be sensed by electronic devices. A visible-light image can then produced for the user's benefit on a video screen. This technique is termed thermal imaging.

Image intensification is the method used for the devices termed night-vision scopes, which exist in a variety of forms that can mounted on weapons or vehicles or worn as goggles by an individual. Image-intensification devices have been used by technologically advanced military organizations since the 1950s. In a modern, high-performance light amplifier, light from the scene is collimated—forced to become a mass of parallel rays—by being passed through a thin disk comprised of thousands of short, narrow glass cylinders (optical fibers) packed side by side. The parallel rays of light emerging from these optical fibers are directed at a second disk of equal size, the microchannel plate. The microchannel plate is also comprised of thousands of short, narrow cylinders (0.0125–mm diameter, about one fourth the diameter of a human hair), but these microchannels are composed of semiconducting crystal rather than optical fiber. A voltage difference is applied between the ends of each microchannel. When a photon (the minimal unit of light, considered as a particle) strikes the end of a microchannel, it knocks electrons free from the atoms in the semiconducting crystal. These are pulled toward the voltage at the far end of the microchannel, knocking more electrons loose as they move through the crystal matrix. Thousands of electrons can be produced in a microchannel by the arrival of a single photon. At the far end of the microchannel, these electrons strike a phosphor screen that is of the same size and shape as the microchannel disk. The phosphor screen contains phosphor compounds that emit photons in the green part of the visible spectrum when struck by electrons; thus, that part of the phosphor disk affected by a single microchannel glows visibly, the brightness of its glow being in proportion to the intensity of the electron output of the microchannel. (Green is chosen because the human eye can distinguish brightness variations in green more efficiently than in any other color.) The phosphor-disk image is comprised of millions of closely packed dots of light, each corresponding to the electron output of a single microchannel. The light from the phosphor disk is collimated by a second fiber-optic disk and presented to the viewer's eye through a lens. The function of the lens is to allow the user's eye to relax (i.e., focus at infinity), rather than straining to focus on an image only an inch or so away. Alternatively, the phosphor-disk image can be filmed by a camera.

Either a pair of night-vision goggles may contain two such systems, one for each eye, or a single image may be split into identical copies and presented to both the user's eyes simultaneously.

Night-vision goggles provide poor peripheral vision, which can disorient pilots or drivers. Further, they cannot work in settings where visible and near-infrared light are truly absent (e.g., inside a windowless building). The latter disadvantage can only be partly offset by providing active illumination (e.g., a laser).

Image intensifiers form sharp images with natural contrast patterns.

Image intensification amplifies radiation reflected by objects; infrared imaging works by detecting radiation emitted by objects. All objects at non-cryogenic temperatures glow spontaneously in the infrared region of the spectrum. Air is opaque to some of this radiation, but has two wavelength "windows" through which infrared radiation passes freely: the 3–5 micron window and the 8–12 micron window. (One micron is a millionth of a meter.)

Semiconductor devices sensitive to infrared radiation in either of the two atmospheric infrared windows can be built, in large numbers, on the surface of a chip. An infrared image focused on the surface of such an array can be read off electronically as image information, and this information used to construct a visible-light image on a screen.

Infrared imagers are also used for a wide variety of forensic and industrial purposes, as they can reveal chemical compositional differences not evident in visible light.

See also Infrared astronomy.



Owens, Ken, and Larry Matthies. "Passive Night Vision Sensor Comparison for Unmanned Ground Vehicle Stereo Vision Navigtaion," in proceedings from the International Conference on Robotics and Automation. IEEE, 122–131, 2000.

Larry Gilman

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADP) to Ockham's razor