What Is the Official Designation of Night Vision Binoculars?
Night vision technology has been popularized by action movies and TV shows to such an extent that people probably don’t even realize how old the technology is. However, what you see in video games and on TV is not exactly what you would see in real life conditions.
Though there are multiple generations of night vision, the image details aren’t always high quality. Night vision devices, or NVDs, are good in a variety of situations but they also have their shortcomings.
Here’s a bit of history and overview on the most common uses of night vision binoculars and night vision technology in general, including a rundown of all official designations as attributed by the military.
Gen 1 night vision devices appeared in the Korean War, but it wasn’t until the Vietnam War that they saw widespread use. At first, the gadgets were very big and heavy, and required good ambient light to work well.
Because of the technology used, these types of devices were also referred to as passive night vision devices. In terms of quality, they weren't amazing. However, these days most affordable consumer-grade night vision binoculars and monoculars are considered Gen 1 technology.
They have low light gathering capabilities and produce their fair share of distortions. Still, there is a huge variety of Gen 1 binoculars available on the market and there are massive differences between them.
Gen 2 devices improved upon the previous technology. Though the changes were not numerous, they were impactful. The key is the addition of a micro-channel plate in this generation of binoculars, goggles, and other NVDs.
This is what greatly improved the image intensifier tube. The results were quickly obvious. Gen 2 NVDs are capable of brighter and sharper images. The effect is also noticeable in darker conditions (clouds, no moon, etc.).
As a comparison, Gen 2 devices tend to have light amplification ratings in the neighborhood of 20,000, while Gen 1 devices rarely exceed 1,000. The resolution is also slightly improved, though not by a large factor.
Gen 3 night vision devices came out in early 2011. The widespread manufacturing and deployment coincided with the war in Afghanistan. A wide variety of NVDs became essential to NATO forces operating on rough terrain, from scope attachments to binoculars.
Today, Gen 3 NVDs are still the bread and butter of armed forces and law enforcement. Whether in the form of binoculars or goggles or scopes, most high-end NVDs on the market these days are classified as at least Gen 3.
As is customary, Gen 3 technology kept enough of the basics from its predecessor. The micro-channel plate is still part of the design. However, the photocathode material is different as Gen 3 devices switched to gallium arsenide.
The micro-channel plate also experienced minor improvements. The use of an ion barrier film as a coating increases the life of the tube up to 20,000 hours, as found in high-end NVDs.
As for the light amplification, Gen 3 devices are capable of up to 50,000 times. As you might guess, it all comes at the cost of significantly higher power requirement.
Some night vision gadgets on the consumer market claim to feature Gen 4 technology, but this is far from being an official designation. Most advances or upgrades only earn a “plus” designation.
That's why it's common to see Gen 2+ and Gen 3+ on military night vision equipment. So, what makes Gen 3+ so special? Quite a lot actually.
For one, instead of traditional batteries, some Gen 3+ devices use gated power supplies. These are much more efficient at regulating the voltage of the photocathode. Therefore, a pair of Gen 3+ binoculars will be able to adapt instantly to changes in ambient light.
A secondary difference – noticeable on a separate range of NVDs – involves a thinner ion barrier. This basically improves the image quality, sometimes as much as two times better than what a Gen 3 image intensifier can produce. However, these versions of NVDs come with a massive drawback. The tube life generally decreases by at least 5,000 hours.
A Final Thought
Night vision binoculars aren't always classified on the consumer market, and when they are, the generational technologies are often misrepresented. The official designation of night vision binoculars or any other type of NVD is determined by the Directorate of the US Army Night Vision and Electronic Sensors.
Another important consideration is the legality of certain generations of NVDs. Most newer generation goggles are illegal to own – some binoculars too. Most importantly, thermal imaging NVDs are even more strictly regulated for their potential intrusion on the privacy of civilians, or for their known use by poachers.