Arab International Optronic, AIO in short, the joint venture between the Egyptian Ministry of Defence and Thales, the latter controlling 49% of the shares, introduced at EDEX a series of new systems, ranging from portable optics to a new Fire Control System (FCS), all based on uncooled thermal sensors coupled to high quality lenses designed and produced thanks to the company skills in optic construction
Born in the mid-1980s, AIO facility is located on the outskirts of Cairo, at El-Salam City, the complex covering over 87,000 m2, a considerable size for a company working on relatively small systems.
Discussing the new FCS what immediately raised our attention was the fact that while most of those systems have a thermal channel based on cooled sensors working in the mid-wave infrared, the AIO proposal comes with an uncooled sensor, which typically has a much shorter recognition range.
The surprise did not lasted long, as in the company booth two other long-range uncooled thermal imagers were visible, which led EDR On-Line talking to an expert present on site who explained us that the Egyptian company developed high-tech skills in the optical domain, optics being a key element when you need to increase the range of an uncooled sensor. EDR On-Line understood that while the increase of the diameter of the lens in cooled thermal imagers is linear with the range increase, when talking of uncooled sensors this becomes quadratic, hence the lens becomes very quickly huge, which needs considerable skills to design and manufacture it. According to our source, who was not part of AIO, the Egyptian-based JV has those competencies and skills as well as the needed facilities, the El-Salam City factory featuring 600 m2 of white chambers for critical optronic assembly operations.
It is to note that soon the Lucie night vision goggles (NVGs), designed by Thales and until now produced in France, will be manufactured at the AIO plant, the transfer of technology being currently underway. The NVGs will be slightly modified, the overall aim being to have a less expensive product with same characteristics in order to open up new markets, while Thales will concentrate higher-end products, mostly binoculars, EDR On-Line understood.
Back to the 100% Egyptian new FCS, known as Striker, this is made of gunner’s optronic unit, a commander’s thermal sight, a driver’s thermal sight, a meteorological station, a munitions temperature sensor, a target speed sensor, a vehicle cant angle sensor, and a gun cant angle sensor. All those systems are linked to a fire control computer allowing upgrading existing functionalities and the addition of new ones. As standard the computer is filled with ballistic tables for six different types of ammunition, however two more can added on request if needed.
Starting from the gunner’s thermal channel, this is based on a 17 µm pitch 640×512 uncooled sensor working in the 8-14 µm band, fitted with a lens with variable focal length from 30 to 180 mm. This provides a wide field of view (FoV) of 14.6°x1.7° and a narrow FoV of 2.4°x2°, with a 4,000 metres reconnaissance range against tanks. Two day channels are available, a wide field one based on a 1280×1024 pixels CMOS sensor fitted with a 30 mm focal length optic providing an 11.7°x9.4° FoV and a 1,100 metres reconnaissance range. This is of 4 km for the narrow field channel, which is based on a 4096×3000 pixels CMOS coupled to a 110 mm focal length optic, providing a 7.4°x5.4° FoV. A Class 1 laser rangefinder operating on the 1.54 µm frequency is also fitted, with a 1 Hz pulse repetition frequency providing a ± 2 metres accuracy. Maximum range is not provided, but is definitely in excess of the optics reconnaissance range. Looking at the optronic module from the front, we find the thermal channel on the left, with the bigger diameter optic; moving to the right, in the lower part e find the wide FoV day channel, followed by the laser rangefinder, over which we can see the lens of the daylight narrow FoV channel.
The Striker’s commander’s thermal channel is fitted in a separate housing and is based on a 640×480 pixels uncooled sensors with a 17 µm pitch, coupled to an 88 mm fixed focal length giving a 7.1°x5.3° FoV and recognition ranges against vehicles and humans of respectively 1,200 and 600 metres.
As for the other sensors, the meteorological station can measure wind speed in the 0-65 m/s range from all directions, ambient temperature between -40°C and +70°C, and atmospheric pressure from 300 to 1,100 millibars. The ammo temperature sensor operates in the -10°C/+60°C range with a ± 0.5°C accuracy. Cant angle sensors operate respectively in the ±30° range that of the gun and in the ±15° range the vehicle one. As for the target speed sensors, this operates at 2500 impulse per cycle rate.
The system also includes a thermal camera for the driver. Also uncooled, no data being provided on the sensor, it gives a 40°x30° FoV, the image being seen on an 8.4 inch display, operating ranges being 1 to 150 metres.
The Striker FCS seen at EDEX 2023 was a system prototype. Tests have already started with the Egyptian Army that will lead to the system qualification. AIO considers there is considerable market for its new FCS. No more details were provided but EDR On-Line understood that considerable quantities might be needed by the national customer, probably for upgrading part of its older tanks still in active service. However AIO representatives considered the new product a solution not only for main battle tanks but also for infantry fighting vehicles.
Beside the new Striker FCS, in the AIO stand the visitor could see two more long-range thermal systems. The first one was the D88 binocular model featuring the same sensor of the FCS commander’s sight coupled to a 150 mm lens with a 1.15 aperture providing a 4.2°x3.1° FoV, a x2 and x4 electronic zoom. With a minimal focus distance of 25 metres, the D88 uncooled thermal imager long-range binocular is 330 mm long, 150 mm wide and high, and weighs less than 2.5 kg without batteries, 18650 3.7V/3,000 mAh batteries being used, the system having a 2 W nominal power consumption. The image is displayed on a 800×600 AMOLED SVGA display, where digital reticle patterns can be injected according to customer’s requirements. Detection, recognition and identification against vehicles (2.3 metres size) and humans (0.75 metres), are respectively 10.3/3,5 km, 3.4/1.1 km, and 1.7/0.55 km.
The second long range thermal imager is designed to be integrated in surveillance and aiming systems. Known as Z50, it is also based on an uncooled sensor. This is however one of the latest generations, as it has a 1280×1024 pixels matrix, which is a super VGA standard, with a 12 µm pitch. The cylinder sight has a 165 mm diameter and is 252.5 mm long, weighs 4.2 kg and is fitted with a 120 mm focal length athermal lens with a 1:1 aperture providing a 7-3°x5.8° FoV. The standard user interface is a 13.3 inch full HD display. Detection, recognition and identification against vehicles and humans are respectively 7/3 km, 3/1 km, and 1.9/0.6 km.
The adoption of uncooled sensors in the aforementioned systems has a series of advantages in terms of wake-up time, cost and weight, no cooling machine is needed, while on the negative side dimensions are greater due to the bigger lens needed to reach the same range. Performances reached by AIO products provide however an alternative for long range surveillance and reconnaissance.
Photos by P. Valpolini