What if…and “IR Invisibility”

In another post, I wrote about invisibility cloaks used to hide small devices from the naked eye. But what about hiding objects when you already can’t rely on your eyes alone? What if you have to disguise something’s thermal or infrared readings?

BAE Systems has invented just such a device, as summarized here by the BBC, and as shown in action on io9.com here. BAE’s “Adaptiv” technology is an array of hexagonal panels and a camera system. The camera system measures the temperature of the panels and the ambient temperature. The panels can then change temperature to make a military vehicle look like a car, a cow, or blend in with its surroundings, even while in motion. Vehicles can even use the panel to identify themselves as friendly forces (the video shows vehicles marked with an “X” and a side panel that changes from displaying “BAE” to “SYSTEMS.”).

The examples in the links above show a tank at 300-400m. BAE believes a larger set of panels could be used to disguise buildings or ships (larger items would not need the “high resolution” of the smaller panels or “pixels”). BAE claims that its technology uses little power and can also serve as an added layer of armor for the military vehicle it covers. BAE also believes this technology could be put into production in two years.

My first reaction to this vehicle was “Hey, that’s cool.” But some problems with this technology are easy to spot. First, thermal imaging cameras are cheap and readily available. The enemy will know “X marks the spot,” or they will wonder what a strange car or cow is doing in their neighborhood late at night. Second, all personnel must remain inside the vehicle, unless they get an Adaptiv suit. Third, this technology only protects against one type of sensor: one that looks for IR signatures.

But it’s this third problem that got my “what if” gears turning. The future of warfare will largely be dependent on a variety of sensors. Remember that line from the movie Three Kings, “That’s what makes S.F. so badass; we got the best flashlights”? Take that idea and expand it dramatically: sensors that read across the entire spectrum of light; sensors that look for electronic transmission; sensors for sound; sensors for smell; sensors for physical patterns; small sensors that swarm across the land, sea, air, or networks.

What if you had to design camouflage for these sensors? What would that look like? Would all camouflage be multi-taskers? Or would you go for layers of uni-tasker camouflage? If someone is using a swarm or network of sensors, might it be more efficient or effective to hack that network (either stop transmissions or feed false data back into the network) instead of hiding or disguising your forces?

On the flip side, what if you have to defeat a spectrum of camouflage? Must you carry or use a variety of sensors? Thinking about an asymmetric fight, what if you used low-tech methods to defeat Adaptiv? Surely, someone could hear the engines of idling tanks even if their goggles showed only a herd of cows, right?

What do you think? What would a camouflage cat-and-mouse game look like in the future, in the air, on the sea, in space?