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L-3 Offers Miniature Infrared Camera

by Brendan McGarry on April 29, 2013

A division of L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. has developed a small infrared camera for drones, sniper rifles and ground vehicles.

L-3 Cincinnati Electronics, part of New York-based L-3, said its NightWarrior 640 is among the smallest, high-resolution, mid-wave infrared cooled cameras. About the size of a baseball, the device weighs less than a pound and offers far more imaging power than its predecessor, officials said.

The company unveiled the camera in a news release on April 29 to coincide with the start of a conference in Baltimore, Md., organized by the Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers. Officials want to get word out about a new technology that they said is cheaper and more advanced than existing designs, and thus well-suited for an era of declining defense budgets.

“If you need to do more with less, you have to go to these,” said Stephen Schmidt, a business development manager with the company.

L-3 in 2012 had $13.1 billion in revenue, which was flat from the year-ago period, according to its annual report. About $1.7 billion, or 13 percent, of that came from infrared-related products, according to Don Gill, director of business development.

The device succeeds the NightConqueror 640 and takes advantage of new materials in so-called focal plane array technology that don’t need to be cooled as much to deliver high-quality images, the officials said. The result is a miniature camera that can capture thermal images anywhere from three to 15 kilometers, depending on the type of lens used, they said.

The product, which sells for slightly more than $20,000, is designed for a range of weapons with sensitive size, weight and power requirements, including unmanned systems such as the Aerosonde and ScanEagle, sniper rifles, binoculars, even combat vehicles such as blast-resistant trucks and the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, Gill said.

The company spent about $6 million developing the technology, he said. The process, which normally takes three to five years, took less than a year — possibly the fastest time ever for a unit product, he said.

“We’re pretty excited,” Gill said. “We’ve made a serious investment.”

Despite concern that automatic budget cuts will threaten spending on defense hardware, L-3 expects the market for such components to increase tenfold over the next five years, to about 4,000 units a year in 2017, up from about 400 units a year today, Gill said.

In a downturn, the thinking in the military goes, “you typically upgrade what you got instead of buying new,” he said.

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