As warfare becomes more asymmetric, civilians and other non-combatants become a larger percentage of the casualties, along with unintended property damage. The military, of course, hopes to avoid these types of casualties and destruction. With advancing technologies that enable more precision from their weapons, they also need better pointing and targeting capabilities, while remaining covert. Improved targeting technologies that allow detection and identification at longer standoff distances from the designators also are needed. For instance, lasers are excellent at precision pointing, but it is important that others be able to covertly image the scene as well.

Figure 1. Quantum Efficiency chart illustrates the response curves for silicon, InGaAs, visible-InGaAs, and night vision tube detectors in the visible and shortwave infrared wavelengths. Key laser wavelengths also are noted.

To address these targeting challenges, the military has deployed lasers that allow them to not only designate the target where munitions should hit, but to use these same lasers to measure the distance to the target, illuminate the surrounding area, or point out to others something of interest. Visualizing where the lasers are pointing, tracking moving targets, and minimizing collateral damage require imaging systems that see the active lasers used in the field. Room-temperature indium gallium arsenide (InGaAs) cameras give users this capability in day or night conditions.

Figure 2. SWIR (InGaAs) imaging at night of 1.06-μm laser, 4 km away.

Most laser-guided munitions are directed by lasers with a wavelength of 1.06 μm. These lasers are very powerful and they can be used to point at objects many miles away. The distance is limited largely by how accurately the user can see what he is designating. This includes the laser spot, the target, and the objects around the target. Currently, most systems use an indium antimonide (InSb) detector array to image the spot. These InSb systems are thinned to allow response down to the 1.0 μm laser wavelength, which is far below the normal InSb peak sensitivity range (between 3 and 5 μm). That range is used for its main application as a mid-wave IR thermal detector.

InSb cameras allow the infrared laser to be seen and they provide situational awareness around the laser spot due to the thermal emissions of the scene. The downside of these systems is that the detector needs significant cooling (down to 77K) and their sensitivity to 1.06-μm lasers is poor, due to 70% and room-temperature operation. They enable imaging laser spots at a greater standoff distance with a much lighter system (Figure 2).

Lasers are not only used to guide munitions to their target, but also can provide the warfighter with information on the target and its surroundings. Laser range finders allow the user to determine the distance to the target. These lasers now use an approximate 1.5-μm wavelength. This wavelength is considered to be “eye-safe” because the energy does not focus on the eye’s retina, and the optical power needed to blind someone hit by the laser is very high. These lasers are invisible to night vision goggles (NVGs) as well as to the eye, thereby making them suitably covert. The advantage is that the target is unaware they are being marked by the laser; the downside is that the warfighter also has trouble knowing if he is correctly aimed at the target. Because InGaAs is also very sensitive to the eye-safe lasers, the SWIR imaging InGaAs cameras are being deployed so warfighters can verify that their targeting system is still boresighted correctly, even if the system has been banged up in the field.

Figure 3. SUI’s KTX shortwave infrared camera and OEM imaging engine for day/night operations.

The most common laser on the battlefield is the one attached to the soldier’s rifle, and typically uses a wavelength around 850 nm. This laser pointer is used by soldiers to point targets out to one another, as well as to assist in aiming their rifles at night when they are wearing NVGs. These lasers are invisible to humans, but visible to the goggles. The rifle lasers are not eye-safe and they are detectable using many other types of detector technologies, old and new. The biggest problem is that while the warfighter needs the best NVGs to see further and at darker times during the night, the enemy easily can detect the lasers with old and inexpensive night vision goggle technology. InGaAs imagers have the distinct advantage of being both backward-compatible, as they image the older lasers used with the NVGs, plus they are able to image “eye-safe” and the next-generation laser systems.

One SWIR camera that was developed specifically for the U.S. Army’s Soldier Mobility and Rifle Targeting System, SUI’s KTX Camera (Figure 3) features high sensitivity in the 900 to 1700 nm wavelength range and can be used in a variety of low-light-level imaging tasks, including laser detection. With wide dynamic range imaging in partial starlight to direct sun illumination, the SWIR imager is ideal for covert surveillance and can be integrated easily into UAVs, unmanned ground vehicles, or other robotic or handheld devices where size and weight are critical.

In next-generation imaging systems, lasers not only will determine the target’s distance, i.e. laser range finders, but they will allow long-range imagery through obscuring mist, haze, and dust. LADAR and range-gated imaging use a laser to illuminate a target at long distances. This long standoff distance allows the warfighter to identify targets at long range under any light conditions and even through fog and smoke.

Most systems now under development are using 1.5-μm lasers for eye safety reasons and because they are also covert to current NVG technology, which has proliferated into enemy hands. Many of these next-generation systems are being developed with room-temperature InGaAs arrays to conserve weight, power, and size on the system. These developments combine with the high-sensitivity features of the InGaAs-SWIR detectors, offering improved performance with safer conditions for the end user and innocent bystanders.

This article was written by Dr. Martin H. Ettenberg, Director, Imaging Products, and Doug Malchow, Manager, Commercial Business Development at SUI (Sensors Unlimited, Inc.), part of Goodrich Corporation, Princeton, NJ. For more information, contact Dr. Ettenberg at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit

Photonics Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the April, 2007 issue of Photonics Tech Briefs Magazine.

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