Choosing what equipment to feature within Gear Up can often be a hard task – namely because it is difficult to differentiate between military/law enforcement equipment and tactical/outdoor equipment. While there certainly is a huge crossover between the aforementioned designations, at times you do find tactical/outdoor equipment that simply will not take the abuse expected from a military/law enforcement product…
With that said though, we’re also aware that not all equipment has to be specifically for use within those sectors. Why, you ask? Because while Gear Up does look to focus in on the procurement chain, we also have a number of retailers that are simply looking for the next best thing to supply to their customers – of which a lot of them are military or law enforcement personnel buying for their own hobbyist use.
The tactical/outdoor hobbyist world, especially in the United States, is worth a huge amount of money – especially when you factor in hunting as well. And while those in the military world will have access to top of the range equipment while ‘at work’, so to speak, that equipment isn’t necessarily theirs to take home – in fact, large parts of a soldiers equipment is owned by the Department of Defense, and as such, stays on base. Due to this, it is often commonplace to see soldiers buy a range of their own equipment, with AR platforms, plate carriers and tactical clothing seen in abundance.
When it comes to heavily regulated pieces of equipment though, night vision is among some of the most policed equipment within the military. In regard to military-grade NVGs, it is often illegal to own them as a civilian, and while we’re unsure on the laws worldwide, the United Kingdom and the United States have some rather strict guidelines in place. In short, military-grade NVGs probably aren’t the best thing to be parading around in for hunting or the likes – not only because you’re likely to get in some form of trouble, but also because they cost a fortune – for example, the Ground Panoramic NVGs from L-£ Warrior Systems (as seen in use by US Navy SEALs) will set you back $65,000.
However, that is not to say that all night vision will set you back that amount of money. In fact, over the past few years, civilian-grade night vision has been improving at a steady rate, with a number of companies flying the flag for high-quality night vision that does not break the bank… However, before we move on to exploring some of those options, we want to walk you through the ins and outs of night vision.
HOW DOES NIGHT VISION WORK?
Using current colour night vision technology is an eye-opening experience that must be seen to be believed; a whole new world awaits your exploration after the sun has set. Game watching, boating, urban and rural observation, hiking and other outdoor activities can be an exciting experience after dark – especially with the right technology.
Choosing the ideal night vision device for your needs can be a complicated process without the proper guidance. Before narrowing your choices, a basic understanding of how these devices work, differences in technology by generation and their features and benefits should all be understood to truly appreciate the device, and to make an educated purchasing decision.
All analog night vision devices share several main components that consist of an objective lens, an eye piece, a power supply, an image-boosting photocathode and photomultiplier. The latter two combined are commonly referred to as an image intensifier tube.
Undoubtedly, the real magic lies within the image intensifier tube – which put into very basic terms – absorbs photons (light energy) and releases electrons (electric energy) before converting into light again in the form of an image.
At the front of any night vision device is an objective lens, whose job is to gather all available ambient and artificial infrared energy before funnelling it to an electronically powered image intensifier tube.
These photons pass through a photocathode, which converts them into electrons. These electrons move on to a micro channel plate (MCP) where they are amplified by a factor of thousands through an electrical and chemical chain reaction created when they impact the micro channel walls. These effectively supercharged electrons then slam into a screen coated in phosphors where they reach an excited state, releasing photons, or visible light, which can be viewed through an eye piece.
The image will appear as a clear and crisp amplified recreation of the scene you are observing, but in a combination of greens and black tones.
Digital night vision devices operate differently than analog devices, in that light entering the objective lens is transformed into a digital signal by an image sensor of either the Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor sensor (CMOS), or Charge Coupled Device (CCD) variety. These are the same technologies used in all digital cameras.
The digital image is enhanced several times before being viewable on the devices display. The larger the CMOS or CCD sensor pixel size, the better it will perform in reduced light. SiOnyx, as an example, has patented technology that enhances sensitivity to near infrared (NIR) wavelengths and therefore provides greater low light performance. Its CMOS sensors produce extremely good low light performance thanks to a combination of its patented technology and a much larger pixel. Currently, the company’s most sensitive sensor is the XQE-1310, producing an impressive 1.3 mega pixels to collect incoming light.
An alternative to night vision is a thermal imager. Instead of searching for light to magnify, a thermal imager detects infrared radiation by way of microbolometers that change resistance based on their temperature. This change in resistance can be measured and converted into a viewable image by thousands of microbolometer pixels. All objects emit some level of thermal infrared light; the hotter an object is, the more radiation it emits and the more that light will change the resistance of each bolometer.
Resolution is typically far behind current night vision devices yet target detection ranges are typically greater. Until recently, thermal imaging suffered a number of issues in regard to resolution, leading to thermal imagers being more difficult to interpret than their analog or digital counterparts – however, thanks to improvements in pixel pitch, the gap between thermal imaging and it’s competition has lessened.
Furthermore, thermal imaging ran into issues regarding target acquisition due to difficulties in differentiating between different heat sources. However, in recent years this has changed due to something known as NETD (Noise Equivalent Temperature Difference). Generally, the more ‘noise’ there is in an image, the higher that NETD value will be.
NOVELTY (SOME FORM OF BIG ‘NO’ HERE – RED CROSS OR SOMETHING?)
At the very bottom of the night vision market are toys advertised as night vision devices to the unassuming. These units are typically cheap and claim to allow the user to see in the dark. A nice quality flashlight is far more effective at the task.
At their best, these devices can offer similar performance to inexpensive indoor home security cameras equipped with a night mode, and even then, the image is only discernible at very close distances. In low/no light conditions, even with the aid of an artificial light source, these devices offer extremely limited range and suffer from excessive, image obscuring electronic noise. Anything beyond the distance of its flood illuminator will be unrecognizable.
Back when we were categorising night vision, you may have noticed we slipped a certain company name into the digital section – SiOnyx. Why? Because we wanted to plant the idea in your head from the get-go that when it comes to digital night vision, SiOnyx are innovators; not only in regard to making night vision affordable but also applying new technology to put them at the cutting-edge of night vision devices.
SiOnyx is a silicon-based photonics company that develops and manufactures proprietary ultra-low-light CMOS image sensors and high-performance night vision camera systems. These sensors dramatically enhance the performance of light sensing devices commonly used in commercial, industrial, medical, and defence related applications.
Best known for their work in the military market, SiOnyx have done a great deal of work with the United States Department of Defense – providing the US Government with advanced imaging and camera technology. Recently the company was awarded a $20 million contract by the United States Army for the delivery of digital night vision cameras for the highly publicised IVAS (Integrated Visual Augmentation System) program – a program started following the potential threats highlighted in the 2018 National Defense Strategy.
With that said though, we’re not looking towards military-grade night vision; mainly because anything above Gen.2 is often illegal to own as a civilian, and some countries completely inhibit the use of non-handheld variants of night vision devices. While we’re aware that Gear Up has a large military following, of who will be able to make use of Gen.2 NVGs while on operation, sometimes having Taking this into account, why exactly are we mentioning SiOnyx to you then? Well, because thankfully SiOnyx have seen the need for high-quality digital night vision for the outdoors market in their Aurora range.
SIONYX AURORA PRO
The SiOnyx Aurora Pro falls under what is the company’s commercially available and award-winning night vision camera developed for consumer use. Dubbed the ‘Aurora’ range (likely due to the word’s relation to a spectrum of light) this small, lightweight and all digital camera system can perform in moonless starlight conditions, similar to Gen II tactical night vision analog optics.
Aimed firmly at the outdoor market, the Aurora range is most commonly used by outdoorsmen, law enforcement, search and rescue, executive protection and mariners around the world.
The Aurora Pro is the top of the range colour night vision camera manufactured by SiOnyx. Capable of day-time, low-light and night-time recording in colour or monochrome through SiOnyx’s own patented Enhanced Ultra Low-Light Sensor Technology. This sensor is the most sensitive in the SiOnyx product range, making the Aurora Pro the proverbial kingpin of the Aurora range.
Designed for fast setting changes, the Aurora Pro features an intuitive switch and dial set-up that allows the user to switch between a number of settings in an instance. The scene ring allows for a custom viewing experience for different times of day and the settings dial allows for fast operating mode changes. Users can also adjust the lens focus and diopter as you would on a normal DSLR camera.
The camera has on-board recording, with up to 60 frames a second for video in HD and still photos with shutter speeds up to 1/8000th of a second. The Aurora Pro also features Electronic Image Stabilisation (EIS) which helps to minimise blur and compensates for camera shake. The device includes a variety of camera recording modes, including: burst mode, time-lapse, panoramic view, self-timer, loop mode, slo-mo (shutter control) and HDR (High Dynamic Range). Furthermore, the device features on-board WiFi, meaning the Aurora Pro can be remote-controlled, live-viewed and can share captured images & videos with the SiOnyx App via a smartphone or tablet. With the Aurora Pro being able to record – and at 720p as well, you also eliminate the need to use an action-cam if you’re that way inclined. Chances are if you’re big into recording you’ll already have some form of action-cam available, but does your action-cam film in night vision? no, no it doesn’t, and are night vision recordings way more aesthetically pleasing? yes, yes they are.
An internal, electronic compass and GPS allow the user to maintain their bearings as well as, automatically allowing the Aurora Pro to geo-tag images and videos for later use. While this may not necessarily sound like something you would use, it’s definitely handy for sorting through recordings at a later date should you want to throw together a bunch of footage from a game.
As previously mentioned, the Aurora Pro can be mounted using a Picatinny Mount (sold separately), lending itself brilliantly to the law enforcement market. The combination of the Aurora Pro’s Quick Release Picatinny Rail Mount, image invert & angle settings and loop mode means you can mount the camera anywhere on your rifle (rail permitting), as well as capture photos & videos without upset. Loop Mode automatically records when a rifle has been fired, with a choice of capturing 15 seconds before & after, 30 seconds before or 30 seconds after firing. Personally, we’re a huge fan of this feature – allowing law enforcement officers to protect themselves in a court of law in situations that have escalated rapidly. Issues of body cams come into question far too often, and having a device that can record in all environments without having to manually press a button is potentially revolutionary. Furthermore, the Aurora Pro can be paired with a red dot sight, and with some tinkering you’ll find you’re able to make use of your red dot AND your night vision.
Should mounting the Aurora Pro to your rifle not be desirable to you (or simply not allowed in your country – please do check any legislation on this as a quick search does show certain countries provoke the use of mounted night vision), you also have the option of fitting the Aurora Pro to a NVG Shroud. Personally, this was our favourite way to mount the Aurora Pro; giving us a very PVS-14 vibe.
On the subject of PVS-14, how exactly does the Aurora Pro size up against what we would say is its closest industry-standard comparison? In an interview, SiOnyx’s CMO Dan Cui immediately stated that Gen-3 PVS will see better in pure darkness/moonless environments, and in reality, we would expect no less. This is in part due to the Aurora Pro not having a built-in IR or visible light source like a PVS-14 does to lighten a darkened room. SiOnyx have looked to counter this with the ‘Explorer Edition’ which comes with an IR illuminator among other things, but it’s relatively bulky and a bit of an eye-sore if truth be told – however it does the job, and sometimes that’s all you can ask for.
With that said though, the Aurora Pro does a lot of stuff that PVS-14 could only dream of – the aforementioned ability to record in 720p, IP67-Grade waterproofing – IP67 equipment is the most commonly found in the connectivity market. It is 100% protected against solid objects like dust and sand, and it has been tested to work for at least 30 minutes while under 15cm to 1m of water, and image stabilisation. You’re also getting a form of night vision that doesn’t paint the stereotypical idea of night vision – no phosphoric green hue to everything, instead you’re getting a colour image.
Furthermore, the Aurora Pro’s compact size and robust bodyshell make it the best tool for outdoor action and weighing in at less than 227 grams (under 8 ounces) make it even easier to carry.
- Sensor: Enhanced Ultra Low-Light CMOS
- Lens: 16mm;f/1.4 (night), f/2.0 (twilight), f/5.6(day)
- Focus: Manual & Auto
- Shutter Speed 1.5, 1.0, 1/2, 1/4, 1/7.5, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/120, 1/240, 1/480, 1/1000, 1/2000, 1/4000 & 1/8000 second
- Video Frames Per Second: 7.5, 15, 24, 30, 60
- Photo Resolution: 0.9MP
- Photo Files: Jpeg
- Video Resolution: 720p
- Video Files: H.264 .MOV
- Viewfinder: Micro OLED Display
- Display Modes: Colour, Greyscale
- Zoom: 3x
- Image Stabilisation: Yes
- HDR (High Dynamic Range): Yes
- Scene Control: Night, Twilight & Day
- Diopter Control: Yes
- Gain Control: Yes
- White Balance: Auto
- Storage: Micro SD Class 10 or UHS-1; 4-256GB (not included)
- Connectivity: WiFi, USB 2.0
- IMU: GPS, accelerometer, compass
- Recording Modes: Burst, time-lapse, panoramic, self-timer, loop, slo-mo (via shutter speed), HDR (High Dynamic Range)
- Tagging: Geo tagging (writes metadata to both photo & video)
- Built-In WiFi: Yes
- SiOnyx App: iOS & Android
- Remote Access: Via SiOnyx App (photo & video transfer, live feed, control and alter device settings)
- Audio: Yes
- Date & Time Settings: Yes
- On-Screen Gallery: Yes
- Protection: IP67 (dust-tight, water-resistant: against condensation, droplets, water spray, water jets, immersion up to 3 feet for 30 minutes)
- Shock-Resistance: Tested against 5.56mm & .223 (6000 joules)
- Dimensions: 118.55 x 63.2 x 52.5 mm
- Weight: <227g (<8 oz)
- Operating Temperature: -10℃ to 40℃ at 90% humidity