Hyperspectral imaging offers a unique way of detecting and identifying objects and materials from a distance. Wood on an IED pressure plate, for example, may be painted the same color as the sand around it, but a hyperspectral sensor can pick up what the eye can’t: the chemical composition of materials. The technology has been a relatively new implement in the ISR toolbox, and the sensors typically have been installed on surveillance planes or UAVs.
Now Headwall Photonics of Fitchburg, Mass., has developed a portable hyperspectral sensor for ground troops to use for reconnaissance, under a $1.5 million development contract with the Army. Called a Hyperspec RECON, it can distinguish 6-inch by 6-inch targets from one mile away, according to the company.
The device needs sunlight to work — it is not a night-vision camera. But because it is a hyperspectral sensor, it can determine the chemical makeup of the objects it is viewing, said David Bannon, chief executive of Headwall Photonics. “There are different reflective properties for different chemicals,” Bannon said. “It doesn’t matter what it looks like.”
The system could potentially expand what reconnaissance soldiers can learn about the threats and terrain. For example, in a reconnaissance mission, the sensor could find camouflaged items that visually blend into the background, Bannon said. Hyperspec RECON is tuned to pick up reflected wavelengths in the visual to near-infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum (380 to 1000 nanometers), which is where skin can be detected, Bannon said.
In its current configuration, he said, it can do things like pick out snipers, no matter how well camouflaged. Every material has a unique spectral “fingerprint,” so the Hyperspec RECON device has a memory card that can be loaded with 10 such signatures.
The device scans a scene in one to three seconds to find the targeted signatures and then displays the scene with anything matching the signatures highlighted in colors — red for skin, blue for camouflage netting, for example, and other colors for other target materials.
Hyperspec RECON sensors have been provided to the Army and are being tested at Fort Belvoir, Va., Bannon said. The cost of the device ranges from $25,000 to $60,000, depending on whether it can be produced in high volumes, he said.
Part of the appeal of the device is its simplicity, Bannon said. The Hyperspec RECON requires little training to use and none to analyze hyperspectral data. In fact, it has just two buttons. Because the device analyzes the individual pixels in an image, it must be held steady during its scan of a scene.
Bannon said his company is in discussions with defense contractors about using the device with their own signature libraries. The company is also developing a similar device at the Army’s request that would help ground troops identify homemade explosives materials from a distance, he said.