Op-Ed: Anti-thermal imaging camouflage — Major military game changer

Posted Mar 6, 2020 by Paul Wallis
Thermal imaging is so common that it’s effectively universal in the military environment. It’s a particularly valuable asset, but now, someone’s come up with a counter – A device that quickly changes temperature to match ambient heat.
Passengers are screened for coronavirus symptoms with thermal scanners at Hankou railway station in ...
Passengers are screened for coronavirus symptoms with thermal scanners at Hankou railway station in Wuhan
-, AFP
As countermeasures go, this is huge. Thermal imaging works on longer wave radiation, which is pretty powerful. Countering it isn’t at all easy, in fact it’s unprecedented. The prototype device can match ambient temperatures quickly. This process could be refined into an almost instant match, effectively making targets invisible to a wide range of sensors.
University of California San Diego researchers have created a device using material that can go from 38C to 10C in one minute. Wearers aren’t affected by temperature changes and are comfortable within a natural skin heat range. (No trivial achievement. Any type of thermal garment can cause some rather grim issues for wearers.)
The device is a wireless system, hooked up to a thermoelectric (uses electric current to change temperatures) alloy material between sheets of elastomers (stretch polymers) which respond reciprocally to heat and cold.
The next step is to create a jacket for wearers. The prototype jacket will weigh about 4.5Kg or around 10lb. At this early stage, it’s looking like the development will require a lot of testing and field trials, but the principle of heat camouflage is critically important and will give leads in multiple additional directions.
When targeting systems go out of date
The tech is excellent, the science is great, and the ramifications of this are truly huge:
• Just about every military and emergency response organization uses some or multiple types of thermal imaging systems.
• Upgrading and responding to this type of camouflage could be very expensive and technically very difficult, also quite time-consuming.
• Adding this tech to other assets is also an obvious possibility. Can a heat-seeking missile track something which stops being visible in infrared? A whole spectrum of targeting systems could be totally obsolete.
• A semi-ponderable issue - If this tech can block heat, can some variant of it block other targeting systems? After all, it’s a wavelength environment.
• Military organizations around the world will need to take this new development very seriously. This tech may be out of reach of terrorists and other tourist attractions now, but for how long? Thermal camouflage can't be ignored at all.
• The stealth applications are so obvious they don’t need mentioning. What does need to be mentioned is that a camouflage race will start ASAP.
• Any targeting system which needs to be on forensic levels to work is likely to be a logistics issue and a half. That’s an emerging threat, much more so than it seems. How do you support a counter to the countermeasure in the field, if you’re dealing with a package of counters including this?
Major positives in other areas, and a lot of them
Thermal camouflage is how this technology is being presented, but it goes a long way further:
Medical applications: Thermography is a core asset in medicine. Can this device be used to stabilize thermally compromised patients, improve comfort levels, manage fevers, reduce heat or cold stress? Neo-natal care, in particular, might have uses for something as agile as this in critical temperature
Industrial applications: Can thermal adjustment materials be used as passive insulation for cooling and heating systems? There are a few good reasons for doing that, not least of which is the cumulative effect of temperatures on operating systems.
Personal wear: Given our nutcase global weather, what’s wrong with a good all-rounder that can manage heat for you? Heat stress and dehydration are no joke, unless you like kidney stones. Could even have positive metabolic effects, reducing the drain on water in the body.
Electrical heat issues: Many electrical systems generate unwanted heat, way too much of it, in fact, and often exactly where you don’t want heat. This system could stabilize temperatures and free up space used by fans and other equipment. That’d be great for all those high-end systems where heat is very much the enemy, and conduction is temperature sensitive. It could be used as a system efficiency monitor, too.
Passive sensors: The device has a clear bandwidth of temperatures and responds accordingly. It could be a good passive sensor for anything from inflammations to dicey wiring, etc. Variants could be scalable.
This is good, productive technology. Keep an eye on how this develops, because it could be absolutely brilliant.