The support that night vision goggles (NVG) provide to police forces is significant. NVG allow police forces to achieve their aim of 24-hour operations with multiple options available depending on their objectives.
According to Jeff Stubbs, Senior Vice President at REBTECH, law enforcement officers were the first night vision imaging system (NVIS) civilian users in the USA due to aircraft ‘public use’ label at the time, and that most pilots then were previously military pilots with some NVIS experience. “NVIS is ideal for law enforcement. First of all it provides additional situational awareness during night operations, adding the infrared (IR) camera allows them to track cars or persons, or locate people in a search and rescue (SAR) capacity,” he said. “We are also starting to see a lot of dual mode searchlights that, while invisible to the unaided eye, are brilliantly visible with night vision optics. For instance, the aircraft could be using an IR searchlight to show the ground officers where a criminal is hiding, a boat is suspected of carrying drugs offshore, or people are illegally crossing the borders.”
Chad St Francis, Vice President of Business Development and Marketing at Aviation Specialties Unlimited (ASU) and former US Army Master Aviator, believes that it is thanks to the greater situational awareness afforded by NVG to police forces while operating in no- or low-light conditions, police departments with marine, air or ground tactical assets can conduct operations 24/7, making them more effective and efficient in protecting the public and achieving the departments’ objectives.
Deputy Brett Hardwick, Pilot at the Air and Marine Operations Unit of St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, observed that unaided flight is severely hampered by the lack of visibility available during the day or with NVG: "NVG substantially enhance situational awareness, which is the most relevant advantage of using the products.”
NVISs support Queensland Police Air Operations (POLAIR) in achieving the aims of 24-hour rotary operations by providing aircrew with enhanced situational awareness and supporting them to operate more effectively and safely in low-light conditions or total darkness, according to a Queensland Police Service (QPS) spokesperson: “This enables continued operations whilst increasing operational capabilities adding to mission success.
There are several ways in which NVISs can support POLAIR flights and this depends on the mission objectives. One way is navigation, the use of NVIS by police tactical flight officers (TFOs) and pilots whilst in flight enables all aircrew to see clearly in low-light conditions, thereby increasing situational awareness and enhancing the aircrew’s ability to navigate safely in what can be at times a congested airspace.”
‘Jack’ Harris, Director of Sales, North America Eastern Region for MD Helicopters who supply several police forces with aircraft, concurred: “The cockpit for any law enforcement aircrew is busy, day or night. The aircrew are often tasked with flying low and slow to accomplish their mission. NVIS enhances operational safety for the flight during nighttime missions. It provides another safety layer that reduces the workload of the pilot and TFO by increasing situational awareness, both in the air and on the ground, during the flight.”
The use of NVIS by police tactical flight officers and pilots whilst in flight increases situational awareness and enhances the aircrew’s ability to navigate safely
NVIS provides aircrews with improved depth perception, which can be crucial when flying in low-light conditions. “This can help the aircrews to identify and make more accurate judgments about the distances between the aircraft and potential hazards, such as wires, towers, and other obstacles. Another support is the integration of NVIS technology with other onboard systems. POLAIR integrates NVIS technology with other onboard aviation systems, such as the IR laser pointer or laser illuminator,” the QPS spokesperson said. “During low-light operations, the IR laser is fired from the gimbal imaging system, this laser can be detected and clearly seen by users wearing NVG. The laser is used to pinpoint targets of interest on the ground that rapidly provides the aircrews with a complete and comprehensive view of the tactical environment, thereby enhancing situational awareness, which increases the effectiveness of the mission. NVIS can also be used during SAR operations to help locate missing persons, identify extremely low-output light sources (such as a mobile phone or a small campfire), identify hazards, and navigate difficult terrain.”
ASU instructors have employed weapon systems under zero illumination conditions and have saved lives in all environments because of NVG, according to St Francis: “To support police forces, we have demonstrated experience in participating in missions to pursue suspects, perform surveillance and photographic missions, counter drug operations, and conduct aerial command and control for critical incident management, special operations missions, emergency response missions, shows of presence in known drug and gang areas, river and lake patrols, dam and water supply patrols, nighttime lighting of accident scenes and traffic control.”
As to what NVG training should cover, Tony Tsantles, Director of Operations at ASU, affirms the minimum requirements contained in Federal Aviation Administration regulations 14 CFR Part 61.31(k) should be addressed and police forces should utilize time and workload properly to execute their missions under NVGs. “The typical crew composition that we have worked with in airborne law enforcement includes the pilot and a TFO. We would encourage those crews to spend additional time distributing workloads effectively in support of their mission, i.e. pilots scanning with searchlight/spotlight on the controls and maintaining a safe operating altitude for observation, while the TFOs use the forward looking infrared (FLIR) and provide airspace surveillance through their NVGs,” he said. “A pilot can easily become task saturated in this environment, so having TFOs keyed in on airspace surveillance during the conduct of low-level reconnaissance can be extremely helpful for workload management. Pilots should always consider the potential for emergencies where possible and rehearse them mentally so that when the emergencies happen, they are prepared.”
A pilot can easily become task saturated, so having TFOs keyed in on airspace surveillance during low-level reconnaissance can be extremely helpful for workload management
NVG training should be both initial and recurrent, with the differences being the depth of detail and the pace of training, according to Tsantles: “For example, our initial course includes a full eight-hour academic day devoted to the same context and detail covered in four hours for recurrent training. For initial training, setting primacy in the way that pilots/crews conduct NVG pre-flight inspections, cockpit conformity verification, basic flying skills and scanning is paramount. Proper helmet fit is another crucial piece to an aviator’s comfort as they begin NVG training, nothing will ruin their NVG experience sooner than an improperly fit helmet.”
Recurrent training should provide more validation on the skills formulated in the initial training. Tsantles explained: “If there is something identified as out of standard, we help correct those things and leave the organization more confident in their entire NVG program. There have been times where we have seen that internal recurrent training has not been conducted properly due to either personnel changeover or time constraints, and we offer feedback to help revamp or update their academic and/or flight training programs if necessary.”
NVG for police forces come with a certain level of investment and training required. According to Stubbs, the entry level investment is the biggest concern: “Once that obstacle has been crossed, what remains is annual training and maintaining currency.” He continued: “As to the aircraft modification costs, these vary between US$15,000–40,000 for most law enforcement type aircraft. NVGs have remained consistently in the UD$12,000–15,000 range.”
Regarding training required by NVGs, there is a variety of options: in-house through certified flight instructors (CFI) with appropriate endorsement, third-party vendors, or manufacturer courses, explained Hardwick.
Many original equipment manufacturers offer training on their platforms, including MD Helicopters who support training on their platforms at their own academy: “We find that annual recurrent training is a best-practice, and we train departments on the mission specifics that they equip, like NVG or others,” said Harris.
Training and the investment required for training depend on a variety of factors, including the force’s objectives. When choosing the training program, the number of pilots and crew, the hardware and software, ongoing recurrent training, the terrain, the types of missions and the aircraft platforms all have to be taken into account. Tsantles said: “We supply courses that are mission-specific and custom tailored based on the customer’s objective, either at the customer’s location or at our location in Boise, Idaho,” he said. “We are able to conduct our NVG training in both rotary-wing and fixed-wing platforms utilized in law enforcement operations, and we offer initial training, recurrent/refresher courses, and NVG CFI courses.”
Pilots should always consider the potential for emergencies where possible and rehearse them mentally
Many police departments leverage funding grants and programmes to procure high-dollar night vision capabilities because the initial investment can be expensive, affirms St Francis: “How expensive it will be depends on the aircraft, size of operation, and where and how the aircraft will be used.” He continued: “An initial set up would require cockpit modification, goggles and personnel training. The aircraft utilized by a department may require additional NVG lighting modifications to conform to local and federal aviation flight regulations. Additionally, crews are required to receive initial and recurrent NVG pilot/crew qualification flight training to maintain proficiency and meet local aviation regulations.”
NVIS requires directed maintenance intervals, which must also be considered an ongoing investment for a police department, highlighted Tsantles. “We simplify it for our customers with a one-stop solutions to get them set up initially and continue operating safely 24/7. We offer certified aviation night vision products, flight training and maintenance services,” he said. “All of this is designed to save time, money and resources, helping fulfill mission objectives, although the investment can be large, the trade-offs – safer pilots and more effective operations – are larger”.
ASU holds several supplementary type certificates (STC) and works with each organization to provide estimates based on the cockpit modification requirements, observes St Francis. “As technology has progressed, we have worked with law enforcement agencies to upgrade NVG. For instance, we offer an exchange programme for the companies moving from green to white phosphor goggles, and this allows agencies to upgrade and adopt newer technologies faster,” he concluded.