In the nature documentary series Planet Earth II of the BBC, the team at David Attenborough used advanced thermal imaging cameras, developed by space company Leonardo, to follow a pack of leopards hunting in the dark streets of Mumbai.
Now that same technology could be built into the main battle tank of the British Army. BAE Systems offers a contract for upgrading Challenger II and Leonardo's advanced night vision technology is an important part of his plan.
Instead of detecting light, Leonardo's cameras detect the heat radiated by all objects with a temperature above absolute zero (-273C). Each pixel in the sensor is 1/12 of the thickness of a human hair and can detect changes as small as 1/50 of a Celsius, and produces extremely sharp images.
"Our thermal camera's – designed and built in the UK – can 'look into the darkness' to the horizon and the applications for this technology are endless – from helping to improve our understanding of the natural world to improve the operational capabilities of the British Army's largest battle tank, Challenger 2, "said Mike Gilbert, senior vice president of Optronics Systems UK at Leonardo.
"Our infrared technology plays a crucial role in supporting British troops in the most challenging environments and we are pleased to work with BAE Systems to offer this technology for Challenger 2, extending its lifespan to 2035 and beyond."
Heat of the moment
Leonardo thermal imaging technology has found a wealth of applications – both military and civil. In addition to other nature programs, including Autumnwatch and The Great British Year, it has proved valuable in international sport. During the Ashes test series in Australia, it was used to determine whether the ball had hit the batsman, bat or pads by detecting the friction of the impact.
From a military point of view, the technology has helped helicopters to fly unnoticed through mountain valleys in Afghanistan and enabled their crews to track down, identify and identify troops before entering the fall or landing zones.
"The face of Leonardo offers Team Challenger 2 the most capable night vision available," said Simon Jackson, campaign leader for Team Challenger 2 at BAE Systems.
"Combined with our technical skills and knowledge of Challenger 2 – which we have designed and built – we will work together to seamlessly integrate Leonardo's technology into the tank, share data through crew stations and with combat management computers."