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Lightweight polymer lens technology could give troops battlefield vision advantage

Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) : 04 December, 2012  (Special Report)
Engineers have made a string of breakthroughs with their thin polymer lenses that would result in a significantly lighter set of combat specs for troops in the field.
Lightweight polymer lens technology could give troops battlefield vision advantage

Optics and materials engineers have been working for a decade on a process that places thousands of transparent polymer layers on top of each other to make what’s called a gradient-index (GRIN) lens.

Now, Michael Keller of the GE-sponsored blog Txchnologist reports that a new artificial lens that mimics the one found in human eyes is set to dramatically lower the weight of night-vision goggles, laser rangefinders and cameras aboard micro unmanned aerial vehicles that soldiers and Marines must carry in the field. Current versions of NVG's can weigh about 1kg. Some pilots use unauthorised counterweights in order to balance out the problem.

"Big, glass or tough, heavy ceramic lenses are the problem", says Stefanie Tompkins of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. “In the past century, every component of an optical system has become lighter and smaller, except the optics. The impact of smaller, lighter optics on anything used to focus light, from contact lenses and corneal implants to lasers and solar arrays would be enormous.”

The key is that the thin polymer layers can be trained at a chemical and molecular level to move light one way or another, to enhance certain spectrums while darkening others. Unlike glass or ceramic lenses, which act on light at the surface, polymer can affect light in different ways as it's still traveling through the lens.

It’s the same method that humans and some other animals have evolved to build the lens in their eyes. In the natural version, thousands of layers of clear protein layers are deposited one on top of the other to allow light through and focus images onto the retina.

The sandwiched layers of polymers are about half the weight of glass equivalents, and their focusing abilities mean that one polymer lens can do the work of three that are made of glass. The result, according to Dr Michael Ponting, the president of PolymerPlus, a spinoff from Case Western Reserve University founded to bring the new GRIN lenses to market, is night-vision goggles that are a seventh of the weight compared to those currently available.

The research agency isn't just looking for better NVGs either. The lenses made from this process allow finer detail, better color resolution, higher contrast and much lower weight. The hope is to put these lenses in everything from satellites and microdrones, to actual human beings with damaged corneas.

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