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Night vision technologies – IR Illuminators

IR or Infrared Illuminators are an additional device that is used to aid in the performance of night vision devices in general. Infrared Illuminators are devices that emit light in the range of the infrared color spectrum.

The infrared illuminators add a lot of advantages to a normal night vision device. As well as being budget friendly, they offer excellent performance under heavier weather conditions – pitch black darkness, thick fogs, pouring rain and even snowfall.

They completely remove the need of using ambient light as a light source for the night vision as ambient light can be pretty inconsistent. As any night vision of course, they take some time to get used to at first. The Infrared Illuminators are categorized into two main categories:

  • Active – The active infrared illuminator devices rely on emitting their own infrared light on different objects.
  • Passive –  The passive infrared illuminator devices rely on only reflecting the infrared light which falls on the device itself.

Think of Infrared Illuminators as a ‘’flashlight’’ that produces infrared light that is invisible to the naked human eye. This produced light from the device gets picked up from the night vision device in an instant and gets amplified hundreds of times, delivering a visible night vision image to the user of the night vision device.

The Infrared Illuminators are light amplifiers, just like a night vision device itself. One non-thermal based night vision device needs ambient light to be present for it to successfully perform – starlight or moonlight. But there are certain situations like for example a very cloudy and dark night, where this required ambient light is not preset.

This is where the Infrared Illuminators come into play. Simply said, the Infrared Illuminator acts as a sidekick to the night vision device. It emits those mentioned invisible-to-the-human-eye infrared beams. In result, the night vision device ‘’picks up’’ this emitted light and uses it as its main light source, replacing the need of an ambient light to be present for the night vision device to perform.

Infrared Illuminators categorized by technology

Infrared Lasers

A LASER when we talk about Infrared Illuminator stands for a Light Amplification by a Stimulated emission of Radiation system that works on the principle of light amplification. The light generated by this system is under constant stimulation by the generated photons.

This means that when an electron is ‘’illuminated’’ with a photon, it gets full of energy and raises on a higher level and in the time of going back to its original level, it emits another photon. This process is like a closed circle and is how a LASER system emits light.

Lasers, that emit infrared light can be solid state and most often made out of materials like ‘’Neodymium-Yag’’ – a laser that emits infrared light at the specific level of 1064 nanometers. It can also be gas-based Lasers like a CO2 laser for example. This laser emits light in a much further range and are mainly used for cutting hard materials like metal for example.

Filtered Incandescent lamps

The devices of this kind are traditional incandescent lamps which are basically covered with the infrared filter. This allows for only a light from the infrared spectrum to be produced.

With this technology, the most common objects that are the most easily detectable are vegetation, wild life, sand and others. IR LED Illuminators – Infrared Illuminators often come with an Infrared LED. An infrared LED is a specifically designed LED which emits infra-red rays with a specific range – 760 NM.

IR LED

The Infrared Illuminators mostly use Infrared LED. The Infrared LED is a specific LED that emits infra-red rays in the specific wavelength range of 760 NM. They are almost always consisting of Gallium Arsenide or Aluminium Gallium Arsenide.

The LED Infrared illuminators operate at a specific voltage of 1.4V. They can both work under a direct emission mode or a reflected emission mode. Most commonly seen array of such LED’s is the incorporation of them in night vision cameras.

Mounting of Infrared Illuminators

There are several different types of infrared illuminator mounts out there – ranging from handheld compact able units to way bigger lighting systems designed for CCTVs and surveillance cameras.

  • Integral The first mounting option for an infrared illuminator is the Integral system. The name itself tells us what this type of mounting is based on – it is built into and attached onto a night vision device. This type is mostly common and seen on monocular and goggles.

The Integral mounting option varies from intensity to quality, but in general is a very good option for short-range scenarios. The biggest downside of those type of systems has got to be their shortened battery life.

  • Attachable – Night vision devices that don’t have a built-into them integral IR illuminator often have a different specific area on the night vision device that will be set for an attachable infrared illuminator. This can most commonly be simply a threaded hole or a specific section on a picatinny rail if we are putting the infrared illuminator on a rifle.
    With the attachable infrared illuminators, every function of this system acts on its own. Those illuminators control/rely on a separate battery source and also have a tendency of being much larger, heavier and bulkier compared to the Integral.
  • Handheld – The Handheld infrared illuminator is pretty much what its name is – it isn’t an attachable device but a fully manual one.
    They pretty much look like night vision flashlights. The handheld infrared illuminators have a little more space as they are bigger devices in general, hence they have a bigger set of batteries compared to the other two types. This of course gives them a battery life advantage – longer and more durable battery life.
    The handheld infrared illuminators would be your best pick if you are using your night vision device with the purpose of longer range. The handheld infrared illuminator has the longest projected infrared beam range from the three systems.

Popular infrared illuminator

Handheld Infrared Illuminator

For the handheld infrared illuminator, the best and most powerful considered handheld infrared illuminator has got to be the Streamlight Super TAC 88704 Infrared Illuminator. It is a long range infrared illuminator at can be considered the best handheld illuminator as it offers all of the features that a user needs when combining It with a night vison device.

The Streamlight Super TAC is a handheld Infrared torch that has additional removable clips. It is very compact and lightweight and even has additional rail mount if you are willing to mount it to a rifle. The Streamlight Super TAC relies on a CR123 lithium battery and has customizable push-button controls.

The device is designed with the idea of being a long range tactical illuminator with a very ‘’deep-dish’’ reflectors so that it can sufficiently produce long range beams without losing quality. Made out of top-notch material like machined aircraft aluminum with an additional anodized finish, makes this device extremely tough during all kinds of extreme weather conditions.

The Streamlight Super TAC offers no compromise in quality as well as a 20,000-hour battery lifetime guarantee. This device is based on an 850 NM wavelength for the sole purpose of being completely invisible to the human and animal eye while maintaining an excellent long-range capacity. The Streamlight Super TAC has its own focusing system so that the long range beams produced by it don’t get ‘’washed-up’’ in the long range.

Attachable Infrared Illuminator

With the attachable infrared illuminators, the ATN IR850 is an extremely effective and top-notch choice. ATN is a company that never compromises in performance. The case is the same with the IR850. It is created as an accompanying device to your night vision device and is attachable to a wide variety of night vision devices.

The IR5850 has an effective range of more than 300 meters while offering a completely adjustable beam. It had a very customizable features and makes it adaptable to all kinds of night vision devices. The IR850 has three levels of brightness settings – this option offers the ability to the user to fully adjust the LED to the current weather conditions. The three LED outputs are split into a Low, medium and high power. The Low setting is when the night is the clearest and there aren’t much drastic weather changes.

The Low setting has a 5% power output and more than 20 hours of battery life. The Medium setting is when things get a bit more complicated – slight rain or not very thick mist is where Medium comes into play. This setting has a power output of 30% and an 8-hour battery life. The High setting is when the weather condition is the worst. Pouring rain, thick mists and even snowfall. The power output of this setting is at a maximum peak performance of 100% but has a very short battery life of 1.6 which need to be paid attention to when using this setting.

This performance is assisted with one rechargeable battery which is Lithium based. The IR850 is a completely waterproof device and can withstand water submerging as deep as 1 meter. This type of waterproofing is more than enough for even the worst weather conditions. The device itself is incased with very high-grade aluminum which is strong, but isn’t drop and hit proof.

Choosing the right Infrared Illuminator for Night Vision Devices

Apart from Generation 3-night vision devices, all Night Vision devices work better with an Infrared Illuminator added into the equation. As the Infrared Illuminator provides a beam of Infrared Light that is invisible to the naked human eye and in most cases invisible to animals as well, they can be very advantageous during hunting activities with a night vision for example.

In fact, a lot of popular night vision devices have an integrated infrared illuminator as the popular manufacturers are aware that the addition of an illuminator boosts the performance of the night vision device greatly. In some cases, this integrated illuminator can be not as sufficient as expected under more extreme weather conditions, so an additional attachable/handheld illuminator can always be a great addition.

This is mostly the case because integrated infrared illuminators have a lot of performance compromises, as every brand strives for making them smaller and more compact.

Wavelength of Infrared Illuminators

Before digging deeper into the wavelength of the IR illuminator, you need to comprehend what exactly this wavelength means.

The visible spectrum is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is fully visible to the human eye. Electromagnetic radiation in the area of a wavelength is also called a visible light – which is measured in nanometers or most commonly seen as NM. Infrared light has a slightly longer wavelength compared to visible light, and that is exactly why infrared beams are invisible to the human eye.

The visible wavelength spectrum of the human eye ranges from 400 NM to 700 NM. All infrared technologies start from 750 NM, which is basically outside of the visible spectrum capability of the human sight. This means that the human eye cannot successfully detect infrared sources making them invisible to the human eye. Night vision devices can in fact detect Infrared Light because they operate on wavelengths of over 750 NM.

There are two different types of wavelengths based on the infrared illuminators – an LED wavelength and a Laser wavelength. Those wavelengths are synchronized with each specific night vision device – analog or digital. Different Infrared Illuminators provide light at different wavelength levels so a synchronization between the wavelength of the infrared illuminator and the wavelength of the night vision device is mandatory.

The main thing that differentiates analog and digital night vision is the wavelength at which they operate. Analog devices perform always under 900 NM wavelengths, while digital night vision devices can exceed those NM. Laser-based infrared illuminators range from 780 NM to 810 NM and work perfect on Generation 1, 2 and 3.

Laser Infrared Illuminators with the wavelength of 850 NM cannot work properly with night vision devices from Generation 1, because Generation 1 devices work on a wavelength of 750 NM so adding an infrared illuminator to this case for example will be completely useless. Anything above Generation 1 will have to be the choice for an infrared illuminator with a wavelength of 850 NM as Generation 2, 2+ and 3 operate on that same wavelength. So knowing your way around the wavelength spectrum is a must, before proceeding to combining an infrared illuminator with a specific night vision device.

The wavelength of all infrared illuminators start from 780 NM all the way to 940 NM. Lower wavelength illuminators are a perfect choice for observational activities as everything below 850 NM, the possibility of detecting an infrared beam is bigger compared to higher wavelengths. So if your goal is to not be detected, higher wavelength infrared illuminator would be the most adequate choice for you.

Conclusion

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