Affordable Night vision-SIONYX AuroraPaul
Of all the equipment in the tactical gear industry, there really is nothing that says ‘He’s a bad-ass’ more than Night Vision Goggles. From Zero Dark Thirty’s close to truth rendition of the United States Navy SEALs through to science fiction offerings such as Ridley Scott’s cult classic, Aliens, a plethora of NVGs have elicited feelings of badass-ery…
We won’t lie… If you can afford it, night vision is a great addition to your gear locker and will allow you to cut around your AO in the darkest of nights; essentially allowing you to navigate winding corridors or the great outdoors with an almost predator-like prowess. However, night vision doesn’t come without a large price point attached to it, and many airsofters have pointed towards the idea that night vision starts to offer individuals an unfair advantage. For anyone who has either used night vision or been on the receiving end of a super-secret-sneaky-soldier appearing from nowhere due to his or her ability to traverse areas unlikely to be attempted by those without night vision, you’ll no doubt agree that it gives you an advantage.
Is that advantage unfair? Well I guess it depends on what you class as unfair. Never have we seen someone label a high-performance training weapon as an unfair advantage, nor someone who can throw a huge amount of money on pyrotechnic. Generally, the consensus is “it’s your money, do what you want with it”. So why then has night vision been branded as giving an unfair advantage?
Personally, we’re unsure where we stand with such a statement, especially as the player-base that partake in games where night vision would actually be effective tend to be those who spend a large amount of money on tactical equipment anyway. So, with that in mind, why should someone be classed as having an unfair advantage when they’ve simply chose to invest their money in night vision as opposed to a shiny new AEG or plate carrier?
Either way, it doesn’t really matter, especially as in the real world, wars are often won due to some form of advantage – The Huns often ravaged Roman controlled territories due to their prowess in combat on horseback, America was able to bring Feudal Japan to it’s knees due to technological advantages and modern day tactics often see areas completely levelled by ordinance before a soldier steps foot on the ground.
But enough of that, we can feel ourselves going completely off-topic here… So, night vision – how does it work, is it viable for use in the airsoft world, and is night vision slowly becoming more readily available for the hobbyist market?
HOW DOES NIGHT VISION WORK?
Using current colour night vision technology is an eye-opening experience that must be seen to be believed; a whole new world awaits your exploration after the sun has set. Game watching, boating, urban and rural observation, hiking and other outdoor activities can be an exciting experience after dark – especially with the right technology.
Choosing the ideal night vision device for your needs can be a complicated process without the proper guidance. Before narrowing your choices, a basic understanding of how these devices work, differences in technology by generation and their features and benefits should all be understood to truly appreciate the device, and to make an educated purchasing decision.
All analog night vision devices share several main components that consist of an objective lens, an eye piece, a power supply, an image-boosting photocathode and photomultiplier. The latter two combined are commonly referred to as an image intensifier tube.
Undoubtedly, the real magic lies within the image intensifier tube – which put into very basic terms – absorbs photons (light energy) and releases electrons (electric energy) before converting into light again in the form of an image.
At the front of any night vision device is an objective lens, whose job is to gather all available ambient and artificial infrared energy before funnelling it to an electronically powered image intensifier tube.
These photons pass through a photocathode, which converts them into electrons. These electrons move on to a micro channel plate (MCP) where they are amplified by a factor of thousands through an electrical and chemical chain reaction created when they impact the micro channel walls. These effectively supercharged electrons then slam into a screen coated in phosphors where they reach an excited state, releasing photons, or visible light, which can be viewed through an eye piece.
The image will appear as a clear and crisp amplified recreation of the scene you are observing, but in a combination of greens and black tones.
Digital night vision devices operate differently than analog devices, in that light entering the objective lens is transformed into a digital signal by an image sensor of either the Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor sensor (CMOS), or Charge Coupled Device (CCD) variety. These are the same technologies used in all digital cameras.
The digital image is enhanced several times before being viewable on the devices display. The larger the CMOS or CCD sensor pixel size, the better it will perform in reduced light. SiOnyx, as an example, has patented technology that enhances sensitivity to near infrared (NIR) wavelengths and therefore provides greater low light performance. Its CMOS sensors produce extremely good low light performance thanks to a combination of its patented technology and a much larger pixel. Currently, the company’s most sensitive sensor is the XQE-1310, producing an impressive 1.3 mega pixels to collect incoming light.
An alternative to night vision is a thermal imager. Instead of searching for light to magnify, a thermal imager detects infrared radiation by way of microbolometers that change resistance based on their temperature. This change in resistance can be measured and converted into a viewable image by thousands of microbolometer pixels. All objects emit some level of thermal infrared light; the hotter an object is, the more radiation it emits and the more that light will change the resistance of each bolometer.
Resolution is typically far behind current night vision devices yet target detection ranges are typically greater. The rule of thumb is the higher the resolution, the more capable the unit is and the more it is going to cost. Because the resolution is lower than analog or digital night vision devices, thermal imagers are more difficult to interpret and recognize object detail, and the landscape. Furthermore, if all objects in a given scene are at the same temperature, there is very little contrast between them.
NOVELTY (SOME FORM OF BIG ‘NO’ HERE – RED CROSS OR SOMETHING?)
At the very bottom of the night vision market are toys advertised as night vision devices to the unassuming. These units are typically cheap and claim to allow the user to see in the dark. A nice quality flashlight is far more effective at the task. In all honesty, novelty night vision is about as useful as the novelty night vision that came with Activision’s Modern Warfare a few years back in the sense of it not being very useful at all.
At their best, these devices can offer similar performance to inexpensive indoor home security cameras equipped with a night mode. To produce a quasi-visible image in a low-light environment, an external infrared illuminator, or a filtered light source is required. Even then, the image is only discernible at very close distances, and typically most effective within the confines of a small room with light coloured, reflective walls.
In low/no light conditions, even with the aid of an artificial light source, these devices offer extremely limited range and suffer from excessive, image obscuring electronic noise. Anything beyond the distance of its flood illuminator will be unrecognizable.
IS IT VIABLE IN AIRSOFT?
So, we’ve established that not only are night vision devices bad-ass, but they’re also entirely practical in the right situations. In a world where a lot of military operations are completed in the dead of night, being able to have a sensory advantage over any would-be assailants is imperative at times to success. However, we don’t partake in military operations, nor do many of us play airsoft at the dead of night… So just how viable is night vision for airsoft?
Well, as anything in airsoft, that question is highly subjective and entirely dependant on your own personal goals when you play airsoft. For example, is your regular Sunday skirmish player going to need a set of night vision goggles? Most certainly not – that money could be spent better elsewhere on ensuring your AEG is performing how you want it or for load-baring equipment such as plate carriers or chest rigs. Furthermore, the average Sunday skirmish day finishes well before light conditions fade to a point in which night vision is effective. So, while it may look cool mounted to your brand new MICH or OpsCore/Team Wendy helmet, in reality it’s no more useful than covering yourself in morale patches.
However, there is a small bunch of you (myself included) who find themselves taking part in MILSIM events that at times can last up to 48 hours. These types of games are where you start to see night vision shine, however, that’s not to say purchasing night vision is going to make you the super-secret-sneaky-soldier that your favourite war film depicts, in fact, night vision comes with it’s own issues such as depth perception and field of view that you need to learn to adjust to. Furthermore, not all night vision is built equal, so while you may see SEAL Team 6 rocking around in Ground Panoramic NVGs (which offer a much improved field of view thanks to the use of four tubes instead of the standard two), it’s best to come to terms with the idea that the night vision available to you is nowhere near this standard; especially due to the fact that each unit costs $65,000.
With all of the above said though, when you start to become accustomed to the shortcomings of night vision, it can become an absolute game changer. Collectively, the AI team can pick out a number of times where having a night vision device would’ve snagged us a bunch of confirmed hits or gave us the ability to effectively sneak up an enemy position.
As you can likely tell, we’re firmly sitting on the fence with this one as opposed to being either side of it. It definitely has its benefits when used in the right situations, however those situations are often few and far between for your average airsofter, and when you take into account the price point on a lot of night vision devices, it can be a tough pill to swallow and a hard expenditure to justify. In an ideal world night vision would be extremely cost effective and we’d all get a chance of running around pretending to be Tier-1 Operators on our favourite sites in the pitch black… although I’m sure someone would end up falling down the stairs (something we see far too often in the day time, let alone in the dark!).
However, for those of you who do find themselves in a position where they would get use out of a night vision device, what would you say if we told you that there may well just be an extremely cost effective example of night vision on the market that wouldn’t require you to sell a kidney to purchase? Interested? Keep reading then!
Back when we were categorising night vision, you may have noticed we slipped a certain company name into the digital section – SiOnyx. Why? Because we wanted to plant the idea in your head from the get-go that when it comes to digital night vision, SiOnyx are innovators; not only in regard to making night vision affordable but also applying new technology to put them at the cutting-edge of night vision devices.
SiOnyx is a silicon-based photonics company that develops and manufactures proprietary ultra-low-light CMOS image sensors and high-performance night vision camera systems. These sensors dramatically enhance the performance of light sensing devices commonly used in commercial, industrial, medical, and defence related applications.
Best known for their work in the military market, SiOnyx have done a great deal of work with the United States Department of Defense – providing the US Government with advanced imaging and camera technology. Recently the company was awarded a $20 million contract by the United States Army for the delivery of digital night vision cameras for the highly publicised IVAS (Integrated Visual Augmentation System) program – a program started following the potential threats highlighted in the 2018 National Defense Strategy.
With that said though, we’re not looking towards military-grade night vision; mainly because anything above Gen.2 is often illegal to own as a civilian, and some countries completely inhibit the use of non-handheld variants of night vision devices. Taking this into account, why exactly are we mentioning SiOnyx to you then? Well, because thankfully SiOnyx have seen the need for high-quality digital night vision for the outdoors market in their Aurora range.
SIONYX AURORA PRO
The SiOnyx Aurora Pro falls under what is the company’s commercially available and award-winning night vision camera developed for consumer use. Dubbed the ‘Aurora’ range (likely due to the word’s relation to a spectrum of light) this small, lightweight and all digital camera system can perform in moonless starlight conditions, similar to Gen II tactical night vision analog optics.
Aimed firmly at the outdoor market, the Aurora range is most commonly used by outdoorsmen, law enforcement, search and rescue, executive protection and mariners around the world.
The Aurora Pro is the top of the range colour night vision camera manufactured by SiOnyx. Capable of day-time, low-light and night-time recording in colour or monochrome through SiOnyx’s own patented Enhanced Ultra Low-Light Sensor Technology. This sensor is the most sensitive in the SiOnyx product range, making the Aurora Pro the proverbial kingpin of the Aurora range.
Designed for fast setting changes, the Aurora Pro features an intuitive switch and dial set-up that allows the user to switch between a number of settings in an instance. The scene ring allows for a custom viewing experience for different times of day and the settings dial allows for fast operating mode changes. Users can also adjust the lens focus and diopter as you would on a normal DSLR camera.
For us, the Aurora Pro has two big selling points that would attract the average airsofter – the ability to record in night vision and the ability to be mounted via a Picatinny Mount; meaning you can strap it to either your blaster or your helmet.
The camera has on-board recording, with up to 60 frames a second for video in HD and still photos with shutter speeds up to 1/8000th of a second. The Aurora Pro also features Electronic Image Stabilisation (EIS) which helps to minimise blur and compensates for camera shake. The device includes a variety of camera recording modes, including: burst mode, time-lapse, panoramic view, self-timer, loop mode, slo-mo (shutter control) and HDR (High Dynamic Range). Furthermore, the device features on-board WiFi, meaning the Aurora Pro can be remote-controlled, live-viewed and can share captured images & videos with the SiOnyx App via a smartphone or tablet. Both the ability to record while on your person or remotely make the Aurora Pro the perfect purchase for any would-be airsoft YouTubers or film makers, and honestly, since receiving the Aurora Pro we’ve wanted to do nothing more than hit the skirmish field and get some real OAF footage. Hopefully we’ll get the chance soon – maybe at an AI-500 or something (curse you COVID!).
With the Aurora Pro being able to record – and at 720p as well, you also eliminate the need to use an action-cam if you’re that way inclined. Chances are if you’re big into recording you’ll already have some form of action-cam available, but does your action-cam film in night vision? no, no it doesn’t, and are night vision recordings way more aesthetically pleasing? yes, yes they are. The ability to record in night vision really does add another layer to airsoft recordings, almost lending a hollywoodesque feel to your latest project. Lasers and camouflage patterns become more vivid and tracer units look even more impressive than usual (yes, we really did stand in the garden late one night playing with night vision and tracer units – and we loved every minute of it!).
An internal, electronic compass and GPS allow the user to maintain their bearings as well as, automatically allowing the Aurora Pro to geo-tag images and videos for later use. While this may not necessarily sound like something you would use, it’s definitely handy for sorting through recordings at a later date should you want to throw together a bunch of footage from a game.
As previously mentioned, the Aurora Pro can be mounted using a Picatinny Mount (sold separately), lending itself brilliantly to the airsoft market. The combination of the Aurora Pro’s Quick Release Picatinny Rail Mount, image invert & angle settings and loop mode means you can mount the camera anywhere on your rifle (rail permitting), as well as capture photos & videos without upset. Loop Mode automatically records when a rifle has been fired, with a choice of capturing 15 seconds before & after, 30 seconds before or 30 seconds after firing. Furthermore, the Aurora Pro can be paired with a red dot sight, and with some tinkering you’ll find you’re able to make use of your red dot AND your shiny new night vision.
Should mounting the Aurora Pro to your rifle not be desirable to you (or simply not allowed in your country – please do check any legislation on this as a quick search does show certain countries provoke the use of mounted night vision), you also have the option of fitting the Aurora Pro to a NVG Shroud. Personally, this was our favourite way to mount the Aurora Pro; giving us a very PVS-14 vibe. What’s better is when helmet mounting the Aurora Pro, you actually get the chance to set your helmet up properly; allowing you to make use of that NVG shroud you randomly decided to slap on the front of your new OpsCore/Team Wendy replica or the counter balance weights you bought and realised if there’s nothing to counter balance then they’re essentially useless.
On the subject of PVS-14, how exactly does the Aurora Pro size up against what we would say is its closest industry-standard comparison? In an interview, SiOnyx’s CMO Dan Cui immediately stated that Gen-3 PVS will see better in pure darkness/moonless environments, and in reality, we would expect no less. This is in part due to the Aurora Pro not having a built-in IR or visible light source like a PVS-14 does to lighten a darkened room. SiOnyx have looked to counter this with the ‘Explorer Edition’ which comes with an IR illuminator among other things, but it’s relatively bulky and a bit of an eye-sore if truth be told – however it does the job, and sometimes that’s all you can ask for.
With that said though, the Aurora Pro does a lot of stuff that PVS-14 could only dream of – the aforementioned ability to record in 720p, IP67-Grade waterproofing – IP67 equipment is the most commonly found in the connectivity market. It is 100% protected against solid objects like dust and sand, and it has been tested to work for at least 30 minutes while under 15cm to 1m of water, and image stabilisation. You’re also getting a form of night vision that doesn’t paint the stereotypical idea of night vision – no phosphoric green hue to everything, instead you’re getting a colour image.
Furthermore, the Aurora Pro’s compact size and robust bodyshell make it the best tool for outdoor action and weighing in at less than 227 grams (under 8 ounces) make it even easier to carry. While airsofters do their best to imitate real world soldiers, they certainly (on a whole) not used to carrying the amount of equipment into battle as an actual soldier, so the more companies can reduce weight signature, the better.
So, having spent a little bit of time with the Aurora Pro, what do we actually think? Honestly, it’s been a while since we’ve had this much fun with a review product. While we obviously haven’t been able to get to a MILSIM event to test the Aurora Pro out ‘in combat’ so to speak, we were lucky enough to have a member of staff on hand to take the Aurora Pro out to the Peak District; which we guess is a close 2nd to our intended use for the product.
We were already very aware that the use of night vision is massively disorientating when first getting used to it, so to compensate for this we spent some time a little closer to home getting to grips with the Aurora Pro. Anyone who has had the chance to use real-steel analog variants of night vision will be well aware that trying to move quickly and quietly while using night vision can be a difficult task, so there will definitely be somewhat of a steep learning curve to get the most out of the Aurora Pro.
However, once you’ve got used to the disorientation and the latency issues that tend to come with all digital products, the Aurora Pro really is a pleasure to use. It’s honestly been a long time since some of us have fully stepped foot on an airsoft site but it almost seems like each time the Aurora Pro goes to another member of our test team, they hold onto it for a little longer than they should – almost akin to a bunch of kids trying to make sure the parcel lands on them in a game of pass the parcel. It’s not often that the entirety of the AI team agree on something – we all play airsoft for different reasons and all have our own favourites when it comes to equipment and weapon of choice, but every member of the team is itching to get onto the skirmish field, so much so that I’ve definitely spotted a couple members of staff with Adobe’s video editing suite, Premier Pro, open, in the hopes that should they become brilliant editors that they’re most likely to get their hands on the Aurora Pro first!
Sensor: Enhanced Ultra Low-Light CMOS
Lens: 16mm;f/1.4 (night), f/2.0 (twilight), f/5.6(day)
Focus: Manual & Auto
Shutter Speed 1.5, 1.0, 1/2, 1/4, 1/7.5, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/120, 1/240, 1/480, 1/1000, 1/2000, 1/4000 & 1/8000 second
Video Frames Per Second: 7.5, 15, 24, 30, 60
Photo Resolution: 0.9MP
Photo Files: Jpeg
Video Resolution: 720p
Video Files: H.264 .MOV
Viewfinder: Micro OLED Display
Display Modes: Colour, Greyscale
Image Stabilisation: Yes
HDR (High Dynamic Range): Yes
Scene Control: Night, Twilight & Day
Diopter Control: Yes
Gain Control: Yes
White Balance: Auto
Storage: Micro SD Class 10 or UHS-1; 4-256GB (not included)
Connectivity: WiFi, USB 2.0
IMU: GPS, accelerometer, compass
Recording Modes: Burst, time-lapse, panoramic, self-timer, loop, slo-mo (via shutter speed), HDR (High Dynamic Range)
Tagging: Geo tagging (writes metadata to both photo & video)
Built-In WiFi: Yes
SiOnyx App: iOS & Android
Remote Access: Via SiOnyx App (photo & video transfer, live feed, control and alter device settings)
Date & Time Settings: Yes
On-Screen Gallery: Yes
Protection: IP67 (dust-tight, water-resistant: against condensation, droplets, water spray, water jets, immersion up to 3 feet for 30 minutes)
Shock-Resistance: Tested against 5.56mm & .223 (6000 joules)
Dimensions: 118.55 x 63.2 x 52.5 mm
Weight: <227g (<8 oz)
Operating Temperature: -10℃ to 40℃ at 90% humidity