The USAF is working on a fly-like artificial compound eye that could one day be used for seekers on missiles as well as other targeting systems. This is hardly the first time the DoD has looked to mother nature for good ideas, but compound eye technology has the potential to greatly increase the field of view and fidelity over existing systems, all at a low cost.
The idea is fairly simple: instead of one large optical sensor with a limited field of view, the artificial compound eye concept works by creating a large array of equidistantly spaced smaller staring optical sensors, each pointing in a slightly different direction. The information from all those sensors is processed and digitally "stitched" together, resulting in a very high-resolution and wide field of view image. Think of a 360 degree real estate virtual tour but much higher resolution, in infrared and with live video as opposed to stills. This same type of technology is already being used on a macro scale by potential reality changing and highly Orwellian Wide Area Aerial Surveillance systems.
The artificial compound eye's (ACE) development is being closely watched by the Wide Field Of View Seeker Program, which aims to give missiles that use imaging infrared technology a much larger field of view than they have today. Once the technology is mature, it could allow advanced anti-ship missiles or Small Diameter Bombs IIs to persistently scan larger surface areas of the planet and with greater definition than current staring or gimbaled seekers systems offer. It could even continue to scan for new targets while also digitally tracking multiple targets at the same time.
Even America's super-maneuverable dog-fighting missile of choice, the AIM-9X Sidewinder, could have its gimbaled imaging infrared seeker replaced with an artificial compound eye seeker. This would not only simplify and possibly lower the cost of the missile, but it could also allow it to more rapidly lock on to targets while also making it much harder for enemy aircraft to break that lock using advanced countermeasures. Flares and BOL-IR expendables, or even directed energy countermeasures may blind one part of an artificial compound eye seeker head but not the entire thing, and with its wide field of view, even if it locked on to flares momentarily it could pick up its original target in its periphery and rapidly re-acquire it.
Even laser guided bombs, which use fairly antiquated form of guidance, could use the technology to be able to seek out a laser spot to home in on over a wider field of view. This could drastically expand such a munition's drop profile, thus allowing for aircrews to stay farther away from their targets and remain more unpredictable during their attack runs.
Even the F-35's amazing Distributed Aperture System (DAS) could be potentially enhanced, made more reliable and less expensive via using artificial compound eye technology. Additionally, it could make DAS-like systems even more accessible for vehicles like tanks, small boats and other vehicles in the future.
Currently, the USAF has allocated $100,000 from its Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer Office for facilitating the development of this technology. $100,000 seems like a tiny amount of money in DoD terms for such a potentially game-changing concept but the Spectral Imaging Laboratory in conjunction with the Air Force Research Laboratory will use the funds to transition the technology over to military industry and to the private sector in an attempt to spur rapid development for multiple applications, both military and commercial.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com