It’s all about Sensors
May 15, 2014

Enemy combatants can run, but they cannot hide from surveillance systems. Often unnoticed by the casual observer, the electro-optical /infrared (EO/IR) system under the aircraft or atop a vehicle mast houses an essential real-time, situational awareness capability.

Today, gyroscopically-stabilized equipment produces surveillance imagery for diverse government requirements – from environmental to military surveillance.

Ontario-based L-3 WESCAM specializes in the design and production of such equipment. Initially called WESSCAM (Westinghouse Steered Stabilized Camera Mount), the patent was purchased by its inventor, Nox Leavitt who founded ISTEC Ltd. The company was renamed WESCAM in 1994 and joined the L-3 team of companies in 2002. Its worldwide reputation for the technology has grown into an almost generic name for the technology that provides full-motion visual intelligence in airborne, ground and marine environments.

The company’s airborne product line is the MX Series, a family of turrets from 10 to 25 inches in diameter, the smallest of which weighs just 37 pounds (168 kg). To date, more than 2500 of the MX series turrets are in use in 65 countries, and on more than 120 different airborne platforms.
Army commanders have found such capability to be an important tool. Ground systems are mounted atop an extendable mast on a vehicle for a higher viewpoint, and WESCAM’s MX-RSTA is the ground system that attracted Rheinmetall Canada – a Quebec-based company that is bidding on the contract to upgrade the Canadian Army’s Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV) with a capability-extending LAV Reconnaissance Surveillance System (LRSS). Rheinmetall has partnered with WESCAM to provide 66 upgraded LAVs with its sensor and imaging equipment.

General Dynamics Land Systems is managing the LAV upgrade procurement (LAV-UP) for Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC). GDLS and the Crown are now in the process of assessing the competing proposals, with a view to possibly awarding a contract in late 2014 or early 2015.

WESCAM’s system engineering and manufacturing are done at two facilities in Burlington, Ontario, while the detailed design and manufacture of lenses are done at its Toronto suburb location of Don Mills. The approximately 900 staff includes optical, software, electrical, mech­anical, structural and control systems engineers as well as camera designers. “It’s a rather large engineering staff,” notes Paul Jennison, the company’s Vice President of Sales and New Business Development. The in-house lens capability is a particular strength that begins with the basic silica and goes up through grinding. “We control that because of the image quality we want,” Jennison asserts, adding that some components, such as circuit cards, are outsourced. “Electronics are changing all the time”, so outsourcing helps to keep the end-product as up-to-date as possible.

With its multi-sensor turrets onboard several Royal Canadian Air Force platforms already (including the CP-140 Aurora, the Griffon helicopter and the brand-new fleet of Boeing CH-147F Chinooks flown by 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, based in Petawawa), Canada’s Armed Forces is an important customer for WESCAM. However, the U.S. is clearly a dominant export market, accounting for over 80% of sales. “But if you look at where it all ends up,” explains Jennison, “many U.S. companies companies are delivering our product to end customers worldwide, I would say 30 to 40% is going offshore.” Other ‘hot environments’ for the L-3 company include the Middle East and North Africa, where “all those areas are looking for more assets to support their security needs.”

WESCAM systems can be configured with a number of imaging and laser payloads, depending upon the ambient lighting conditions under which the system will be required to image; daylight, low light, or no light, the required magnification level, as well whether laser rangefinding or target designation capability are required. As the size of the turret scales up, so does the number of devices and the size/magnification of the optics. This is generally constrained by size and weight limit imposed by the host aircraft or vehicle.

Despite advances in miniaturization, more sensors and heavier weight would almost certainly require increased stabilization capability to reduce – and preferably prevent – image jitter. “Basically, performance scales with size in this business,” Jennison observes. “You need bigger optics to get longer range and higher performance which, in turn, means the stabilization has to be that much better.” This is particularly true in ground-based applications compared with relatively smooth airborne ones.

“It’s all line-of-sight,” Jennison adds, the “gold standard” having evolved into the range at which a given target can be detected, recognized and identified. In the air, it keeps helicopters safely away from power lines and other infrastructure and, in combat operations, further away from small-arms fire and even some shoulder-launched missiles. Line-of-sight presents a special challenge in ground-based installations, especially in an urban environment where buildings impede troops’ ability to monitor threats and respond promptly.

As proposed with Rheinmetall Canada for the LRSS program, the sensor package would comprise a binocular-style turret atop a mast, which can be extended up to 10 metres (33 feet) above the main gun turret. That typically would improve the commander’s situational awareness and the gunner’s view of targets in a reconnaissance or surveillance mission. It would enable the LAV crew to reach out as far as 4km.

Ground deployment has its own challenges. “Shock and vibration are different and it comes with all the muck and sand and the rest of it,” Jennison shares. “Hardening for the ground market takes it up a notch or two; a 30-pound airborne turret easily can reach 50 pounds for a ground vehicle.” Handling temperature extremes evidently is not much different, however, in that “when it’s hot, you need to cool it, and when it’s cold you need to warm it.” But a super-heated desert environment can require special care to prevent camera heads from shutting down.

“With Rheinmetall, we’ve put together a system we believe will be very good for tender,” Jennison tells FrontLine confidently. “Over and above that, we’re working with Rheinmetall on export possibilities. We already work with them internationally; they take some of our sensors for aerostat (tethered surveillance blimps) applications. They look after the infrastructure inside the vehicle and the command-and-control, while we provide the sensors and stabilization expertise. That model has worked out well for both of us, and we think there will be a market in other jurisdictions around the world for the high-end capability we’re proposing for the LRSS. It all has to integrate, and that’s their specialty.”

There is clearly a global product opportunity for this type of armoured vehicle system, particularly if the L-3 WESCAM/ Rheinmetall partnership wins the contract and it leads to additional export sales. “We are starting to work that out with them now,” Jennison said of talks with Rheinmetall. “Who would lead and who would follow depends on the market and where the companies each have footprints.” However it works out, he believes L-3 already has a “best-in-class” package and the Ontario-based company is always “looking to put more strings on our bow.”

Ken Pole is a contributing editor at FrontLine.
© FrontLine Magazines 2014